The wrong genes mean even moderate drinking in pregnancy can affect a child's IQ

December, 2012

A large study suggests that even a few drinks a week can negatively affect the developing fetus, but only if the woman has specific gene variants.

It’s always difficult in human studies to disentangle the effects of lifestyle factors. Alcohol is a case in point, and in particular the vexed question of whether any alcohol is safe during pregnancy. A new study, however, has avoided the complication of co-occurring lifestyle and environment factors by looking directly at genetic variants.

This study, believed to be the first substantial one of its kind, used genetic variation to investigate the effects of moderate (<6 units of alcohol per week) drinking during pregnancy among a large group of women and their children. Since the individual variations that people have in their DNA are not connected to lifestyle and social factors, the approach removes that potential complication.

The study, involving 4,167 children, found that four genetic variants in alcohol-metabolizing genes were strongly related to lower IQ at age eight. But this effect was only seen among the children of women who were moderate drinkers (heavy drinkers were not included in the study), pointing to the effect requiring exposure to alcohol in the womb.

Ten SNPs from four genes previously implicated in alcohol metabolism, intake, or dependency, were analyzed. Four SNPs (particular variants) were related to children’s scores on the cognitive test (WISC), of which three are rare and one quite common. There was an additive effect, with carriers of multiple ‘bad’ alleles being more affected.

There was some evidence that only drinking one or two drinks a week was not harmful to the fetus, but because the numbers of women were relatively small, and individual variability was high, this can’t be assessed with any great certainty.

The critical factor appears to be metabolism of alcohol, with mothers who are ‘fast' metabolizers being safer for their fetus than mothers who metabolize alcohol more slowly.

Mothers' alcohol intake was based on questionnaires completed when they were 18 weeks and 32 weeks pregnant. ‘Moderate’ was defined as between one and six drinks a week. All participants were of white-European origin.




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How neighborhood status affects cognitive function in older adults

November, 2011

New research confirms the correlation between lower neighborhood socioeconomic status and lower cognitive function in older adults, and accounts for most of it through vascular health, lifestyle, and psychosocial factors.

In the last five years, three studies have linked lower neighborhood socioeconomic status to lower cognitive function in older adults. Neighborhood has also been linked to self-rated health, cardiovascular disease, and mortality. Such links between health and neighborhood may come about through exposure to pollutants or other environmental stressors, access to alcohol and cigarettes, barriers to physical activity, reduced social support, and reduced access to good health and social services.

Data from the large Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study has now been analyzed to assess whether the relationship between neighborhood socioeconomic status can be explained by various risk and protective factors for poor cognitive function.

Results confirmed that higher neighborhood socioeconomic status was associated with higher cognitive function, even after individual factors such as age, ethnicity, income, education, and marital status have been taken into account. A good deal of this was explained by vascular factors (coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke, hypertension), health behaviors (amount of alcohol consumed, smoking, physical activity), and psychosocial factors (depression, social support). Nevertheless, the association was still (barely) significant after these factors were taken account of, suggesting some other factors may also be involved. Potential factors include cognitive activity, diet, and access to health services.

In contradiction of earlier research, the association appeared to be stronger among younger women. Consistent with other research, the association was stronger for non-White women.

Data from 7,479 older women (65-81) was included in the analysis. Cognitive function was assessed by the Modified MMSE (3MSE). Neighborhood socioeconomic status was assessed on the basis of: percentage of adults over 25 with less than a high school education, percentage of male unemployment, percentage of households below the poverty line, percentage of households receiving public assistance, percentage of female-headed households with children, and median household income. Around 87% of participants were White, 7% Black, 3% Hispanic, and 3% other. Some 92% had graduated high school, and around 70% had at least some college.


[2523] Shih, R. A., Ghosh-Dastidar B., Margolis K. L., Slaughter M. E., Jewell A., Bird C. E., et al.
(2011).  Neighborhood Socioeconomic Status and Cognitive Function in Women.
Am J Public Health. 101(9), 1721 - 1728.


Lang IA, Llewellyn DJ, Langa KM, Wallace RB, Huppert FA, Melzer D. 2008. Neighborhood deprivation, individual socioeconomic status, and cognitive function in older people: analyses from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. J Am Geriatr Soc., 56(2), 191-198.

Sheffield KM, Peek MK. 2009. Neighborhood context and cognitive decline in older Mexican Americans: results from the Hispanic Established Populations for Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly. Am J Epidemiol., 169(9), 1092-1101.

Wight RG, Aneshensel CS, Miller-Martinez D, et al. 2006. Urban neighborhood context, educational attainment, and cognitive function among older adults. Am J Epidemiol., 163(12), 1071-1078.



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Alcohol's possible benefits for the brain

There seems to be quite a lot of evidence now, that a moderate amount of alcohol consumption (around 1-2 drinks a day) can help protect against Alzheimer’s — though not, a review concluded, vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline (but the jury’s still out on that one, I think). Moderate alcohol consumption is significantly associated with other factors that help protect against dementia, such as better education, not living alone, and absence of depression, but seems to have an effect on its own account as well.

It must be emphasized that this positive effect is restricted to the ‘right’ level of alcohol consumption. The damage alcohol can do to the brain is only too well established.

The effect doesn’t appear to be restricted to a particular type of alcohol. Having said that, there are components in wine, especially red wine, that have also been associated with lower dementia risk. These components include polyphenols such as epicatechin, catechin and resveratrol.

Benefits may not apply to everyone however. One study found that carriers of the Alzheimer’s gene, APOe4, were more likely to develop dementia if they drank any alcohol — it was only non-carriers that showed a benefit of moderate drinking. Another large study found that the benefits of moderate drinking only applied to those who had no cognitive impairment. For those with mild cognitive impairment, drinking speeded up the rate of decline. Another, large long-running, study found that, although non-smokers who consumed moderate amounts of alcohol were less likely to have a stroke than non-drinkers, this didn’t apply to smokers.

These individual variations may explain the inconsistency in previous studies regarding the relationship between light to moderate drinking and age-related cognitive impairment.

The story of alcohol and the brain is clearly a complex one, not easily disentangled. One large, long-running study, for example, found an association between alcohol and brain atrophy even at moderate levels of consumption.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Regular moderate alcohol intake has cognitive benefits in older adults

A six-year study involving over 3,000 seniors (75+) has found that for those who had no cognitive impairment at the start of the study, moderate drinking (1-2 drinks a day) was associated with a 37% reduction in risk of developing dementia compared to individuals who did not drink at all. The type of alcohol didn’t matter. However, for those who started the study with mild cognitive impairment, any consumption of alcohol was associated with faster rates of cognitive decline. Moreover, heavy drinkers were almost twice as likely to develop dementia during the study. The results are consistent with previous studies of middle-aged adults that suggest mild to moderate alcohol intake may reduce the risk of dementia, except in the case of individuals who already have mild to moderate cognitive impairment.

Sink, K.M. et al. 2009. Moderate alcohol intake is associated with lower dementia incidence: results from the Ginkgo Evaluation of Memory Study (GEMS). Presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease July 11-16 in Vienna.

Moderate drinking can reduce risks of Alzheimer's dementia and cognitive decline

A review of 44 studies has concluded that moderate drinkers often have lower risks of Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive loss. Moderate alcohol consumption generally is defined as 1 drink or less per day for women and 1-2 drinks or less per day for men.

[2374] Collins, M. A., Neafsey E. J., Mukamal K. J., Gray M. O., Parks D. A., Das D. K., et al.
(2009).  Alcohol in Moderation, Cardioprotection, and Neuroprotection: Epidemiological Considerations and Mechanistic Studies.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(2), 206 - 219.

Chocolate, wine and tea improve brain performance

A study of over 2000 older Norwegians (aged 70-74) has found that those who consumed chocolate, wine, or tea had significantly better cognitive performance and lower risk of poor cognitive performance than those who did not. Those who consumed all 3 studied items had the best performance and the lowest risks for poor test performance. The associations between intake of these foodstuffs and cognition were dose dependent, with maximum effect at intakes of around 10 grams a day for chocolate and around 75–100 ml a day for wine, but approximately linear for tea. The effect was most pronounced for wine and modestly weaker for chocolate intake. The finding is consistent with research indicating that those who consume lots of flavonoids have a lower incidence of dementia.

[623] Nurk, E., Refsum H., Drevon C. A., Tell G. S., Nygaard H. A., Engedal K., et al.
(2009).  Intake of flavonoid-rich wine, tea, and chocolate by elderly men and women is associated with better cognitive test performance.
The Journal of Nutrition. 139(1), 120 - 127.

Red grape seeds may help prevent Alzheimer's disease

Research into the nearly 5000 compounds contained in red wine to reveal the source of the health benefits seen from red wine has revealed that polyphenols derived from red grape seeds may be useful agents to prevent or treat Alzheimer's disease. Red grape seeds currently being developed with the name of Meganatural AZ were found to significantly reduce cognitive deterioration in genetically engineered mice, by preventing the formation of amyloid beta. The mice were given the extract before the age at which they normally develop signs of disease, suggesting the extract may help prevent or postpone the development of Alzheimer’s. The major polyphenol components in the grape seed extract product are catechin and epicatechin, which are also abundant in tea and cocoa. Unlike the polyphenol resveratrol, which has been shown to have similar effects, but requires extremely high doses, the catechins appear to be effective at much lower doses. Further research will of course be needed before human recommendations can be made.

[2377] Wang, J., Ho L., Zhao W., Ono K., Rosensweig C., Chen L., et al.
(2008).  Grape-Derived Polyphenolics Prevent Aβ Oligomerization and Attenuate Cognitive Deterioration in a Mouse Model of Alzheimer's Disease.
The Journal of Neuroscience. 28(25), 6388 - 6392.

Why moderate drinking may boost memory

Another study has come out suggesting moderate amounts of alcohol are good for the brain, and explaining why. The rat study found that low levels of alcohol increased the expression of a particular receptor, NR1, on the surface of neurons in the hippocampus. Increasing the number of NR1 receptors in a different group of rats resulted in a memory boost similar to that seen in the rats given low doses of alcohol. There were no toxic effects of low-level alcohol consumption (1—2 drinks a day) on the brain, but a higher dose of alcohol did damage neurons.

The findings were presented at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting on October 14-18 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Cabernet sauvignon red wine reduces the risk of Alzheimer's disease

A mouse study has found moderate consumption of the red wine Cabernet Sauvignon significantly reduced Alzheimer’s-type deterioration of spatial memory function. The Cabernet Sauvignon used contained a very low content of resveratrol, 10-fold lower than the minimal effective concentration shown to promote Aß clearance in vitro. It is suggested that, instead, the benefit occurred through promoting non-amyloidogenic processing of amyloid precursor protein. The finding supports epidemiological evidence indicating that moderate wine consumption (one drink per day for women and two for men) may help reduce the relative risk for Alzheimer’s.

[2378] Wang, J., Ho L., Zhao Z., Seror I., Humala N., Dickstein D. L., et al.
(2006).  Moderate consumption of Cabernet Sauvignon attenuates Aß neuropathology in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.
The FASEB Journal. 20(13), 2313 - 2320.

Moderate alcohol intake associated with better mental function in older women

A study of over 7,000 older women (65-80) found that those who drink a moderate amount of alcohol have slightly higher levels of mental function than non-drinkers, particularly in verbal abilities. The researcher warned that "Until we better understand the reasons why alcohol consumption is associated with better cognitive functioning, these results on their own are not a reason for people who don't drink to start or for those who drink to increase their intake."

[455] Espeland, M. A., Coker L. H., Wallace R., Rapp S. R., Resnick S. M., Limacher M., et al.
(2006).  Association between alcohol intake and domain-specific cognitive function in older women.
Neuroepidemiology. 27(1), 1 - 12.

More support for benefits of some alcohol

A longitudinal study of an elderly community sample found that, over an average of 7 years, mild-to-moderate drinking was associated with less average decline in cognitive function compared to not drinking.

[1203] Ganguli, M., Bilt V. J., Saxton J. A., Shen C., & Dodge H. H.
(2005).  Alcohol consumption and cognitive function in late life: A longitudinal community study.
Neurology. 65(8), 1210 - 1217.

Moderate alcohol intake may reduce cognitive decline in older women

Two recent large-scale epidemiological studies have come out recently with similar findings. Data from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study (involving 4,461 women aged 65 to 79 years) has revealed that women who reported having one or more alcohol drinks daily had a 40% lower risk of significant declines in cognitive function over time, compared to women who reported no alcohol intake. It is possible that moderate alcohol intake may reduce the risk for narrowed vessels in the brain. In addition, alcohol may decrease the formation of plaque that is associated with Alzheimer's disease.
Data from the Nurses' Health Study, begun in 1976 and involving 12,480 women, now aged between 70 and 81 years old, has found that women who had the equivalent of one drink a day had a 23% lower risk of becoming mentally impaired during a two-year period, compared with non-drinkers. It made no significant difference whether they drank beer or wine.

[1108] Espeland, M. A., Gu L., Masaki K. H., Langer R. D., Coker L. H., Stefanick M. L., et al.
(2005).  Association between Reported Alcohol Intake and Cognition: Results from the Women's Health Initiative Memory Study.
Am. J. Epidemiol.. 161(3), 228 - 238.

[1115] Stampfer, M. J., Kang J H., Chen J., Cherry R., & Grodstein F.
(2005).  Effects of Moderate Alcohol Consumption on Cognitive Function in Women.
N Engl J Med. 352(3), 245 - 253. (1st study) (2nd study)

Drinking too much alcohol, and not enough, increases risk of cognitive impairment

In Finland, researchers re-examined 1018 participants from a study of 1464 men and women aged 65-79 studied in 1972 or 1977. They found that participants who drank no alcohol in midlife as well as those who drank alcohol frequently were twice as likely to have mild cognitive impairment in old age compared to those who drank alcohol infrequently. The effect of alcohol was however modified by the presence of the apolipoprotein e4 allele (implicated in dementia risk). People who were carriers of the apolipoprotein e4 allele had an increased risk of dementia with increasing alcohol consumption, with carriers of the gene significantly reducing their risk by never drinking.

[731] Kivipelto, M., Anttila T., Helkala E-L., Viitanen M., Kareholt I., Fratiglioni L., et al.
(2004).  Alcohol drinking in middle age and subsequent risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia in old age: a prospective population based study.
BMJ. 329(7465), 539 - 539.

Possible benefits of alcohol in reducing cognitive decline

Another report from the Whitehall Study database. This one adds to the, still controversial, research linking moderate wine consumption with health and longevity. Of those who reported drinking alcohol in the past year, those who consumed at least one drink in the past week were significantly less likely to have poor cognitive function than those who did not. These benefits appeared even at levels of alcohol consumption that most sensible observers would consider excessive, and emphasizes once again that correlation is not causation. It seems likely that this association at least partly reflects other factors, and indeed, the correlation was reduced when social position was taken account of. It may also reflect the possible effect of alcohol in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.

Alcohol's benefits for cognition may be overstated

Some studies (that receive a lot of media attention) have suggested that moderate alcohol drinking may have beneficial effects on the heart or the brain. Other studies have found no effect, or a negative one. Now a new study may provide an answer to the conflicting results. Using data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which has followed more than 10,000 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957, researchers in 1992 asked the participants about their drinking habits. It was found that men who consumed low levels of alcohol in 1992 had higher scores on the abstract reasoning test than those who drank either more or less. However, when earlier cognitive ability (measured in high school) was taken into account, the difference between non-drinkers and those who had one drink a day disappeared. With the women, both non-drinkers and heavy drinkers had lower scores at age 53 than moderate drinkers. But when adolescent cognitive ability was taken into account, these differences disappeared. Participants will be re-examined next year, when they’re about 65.

[2375] Krahn, D., Freese J., Hauser R., Barry K., & Goodman B.
(2003).  Alcohol Use and Cognition at Mid‐Life: The Importance of Adjusting for Baseline Cognitive Ability and Educational Attainment.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 27(7), 1162 - 1166.

Drinking wine may lower risk of dementia

Researchers in Copenhagen have followed up an analysis of drinking patterns for wine, beer and liquor of 1,709 people in the 1970s with an assessment of dementia in the 1990s, when participants were age 65 or older. 83 of the participants had developed dementia. Their alcohol intake was compared to that of those who did not develop dementia. It was found that those who drank wine occasionally had a lower risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer's disease. Those who drank wine every day were no more or less likely to develop dementia than those who drank it less often. The study also found that occasional beer drinking was associated with an increased risk of developing dementia. It is important to note that eating habits were not investigated, and research suggests that wine drinkers may have better dietary habits than beer and liquor drinkers.

[2376] Truelsen, T., Thudium D., & Grønbæk M.
(2002).  Amount and type of alcohol and risk of dementia.
Neurology. 59(9), 1313 - 1319.

Moderate alcohol consumption may help prevent dementia

Recent research has suggested that moderate alcohol consumption may have positive health benefits for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular functioning. Given the connection between dementia in old age and cerebrovascular disease, a recent Italian study analyzed data from 15,807 patients (65 years of age or older) to assess whether there is any link between alcohol consumption and cognitive function. Signs of cognitive derangement were found in 19% of the participants who reported regular alcohol consumption, and in 29% of those who abstained from alcohol. The quantity of daily alcohol consumption was an important factor. The risk of cognitive impairment was reduced among women whose daily alcohol consumption was less than 40 grams and among men who drank less than 80 grams. Higher levels of alcohol consumption showed an increased risk of cognitive impairment when compared with both abstainers and moderate drinkers.

[954] Zuccalà, G., Onder G., Pedone C., Cesari M., Landi F., Bernabei R., et al.
(2001).  Dose-Related Impact of Alcohol Consumption on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age: Results of a Multicenter Survey.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 25(12), 1743 - 1748.

A Dutch study suggests that light-to-moderate alcohol consumption could reduce the risk of dementia among older people. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption (1 to 3 drinks per day) was associated with a 42% risk reduction of all dementia, and around a 70% reduction in risk of vascular dementia.

[794] Ruitenberg, A., van Swieten J. C., Witteman J CM., Mehta K. M., van Duijn C. M., Hofman A., et al.
(2002).  Alcohol consumption and risk of dementia: the Rotterdam Study.
The Lancet. 359(9303), 281 - 286.

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tags lifestyle: 

tags problems: 

Alcohol's damage to the brain

While moderate drinking seems to have a protective effect against age-related cognitive decline and dementia, cognitive impairment produced by excess alcohol is only too evident. Here are a few less obvious cognitive effects:

Simulated laparoscopic surgery was impaired in both novices and experts on the day following an evening during which excessive alcohol was consumed, although experts were less impaired than novices. Performance had returned to baseline levels by 4:00 p.m.

When people drank before viewing a video of serious road traffic accidents, those given a smaller amount of alcohol experienced more flashbacks during the next week than those given a larger amount of alcohol, and those given no alcohol. Those who had large amounts of alcohol had poorer memories of the event. It’s suggested that alcohol impairs contextual memory first.

Another study found that recognition of different-race faces was unaffected by alcohol, but recognition of own-race faces was — meaning recognition of same-race faces was at about the same level of accuracy as different-race faces.

Cognitive impairment produced by excess alcohol is of course only too evident. Here are a few less obvious cognitive effects:

Simulated laparoscopic surgery was impaired in both novices and experts on the day following an evening during which excessive alcohol was consumed, although experts were less impaired than novices. Performance had returned to baseline levels by 4:00 p.m.

When people drank before viewing a video of serious road traffic accidents, those given a smaller amount of alcohol experienced more flashbacks during the next week than those given a larger amount of alcohol, and those given no alcohol. Those who had large amounts of alcohol had poorer memories of the event. It’s suggested that alcohol impairs contextual memory first.

Another study found that recognition of different-race faces was unaffected by alcohol, but recognition of own-race faces was — meaning recognition of same-race faces was at about the same level of accuracy as different-race faces.

Heavy drinking

Heavy drinking can be chronic, or occasional. Both have their price.

A rat study suggests that it doesn’t take all that long before heavy drinking produces long-lasting cognitive deficits. Rats drinking for eight weeks (but not four) developed deficits that lasted at least 12 weeks after drinking stopped — “equivalent to a human that drank six to eight beers or one bottle of wine a day every day for six years experiencing learning and memory deficits up to nine years after they stopped drinking alcohol."

Brain scans of heavy social drinkers have revealed damage to white matter that was associated with lower executive and working memory functions. This is consistent with a self-report study that found that heavy users of alcohol were more likely to miss appointments, forget birthdays and pay bills on time, and to forget whether they had done something or where they had put something.

One study suggests that heavy drinking is particularly a problem for those infected with HIV. The mediotemporal lobe is affected early in both these conditions, so it is not surprising that those positive for HIV with a history of chronic heavy drinking were found to have trouble encoding new information for long-term memory.

Smoking and alcohol

Smoking has a particularly negative effect in conjunction with alcohol (and unfortunately they are often found in tandem). While moderate drinking can in some circumstances have positive effects on the brain, this is probably not the case for those who smoke. Moreover, smoking makes it much harder for the brain to recover from the effects of alcohol abuse, the damage done to the brain by heavy alcohol consumption is likely to be much worse if the individual is a smoker.


One of the characteristics of alcoholics is that they don’t recognize the extent of their problem. So perhaps it’s no surprise that a study found that alcoholics were relatively unaware of their memory deficits and believed that their memory was much better than it was. Moreover, the greater their deficits, the less they were aware of them!

Years of heavy alcohol consumption impair executive functions, including judgment, problem solving, decision making, planning, and social conduct.

Imaging studies indicate that the brains of alcoholics develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain cognitive skills despite alcohol's damages. It seems likely that this wider activity comes at the expense of other tasks, thus reducing their ability to multitask.

Excessive chronic drinking is also associated with deficits in comprehending emotional information, such as recognizing different facial expressions, and visuospatial deficits, characterized by difficulties completing tasks such as putting pieces of a puzzle together or map reading. While long-term abstinence can recover most of the cognitive function lost, spatial processing abilities seem much harder to recover.

In line with these problems of executive function, episodic and spatial memory, the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are especially vulnerable to the effects of chronic alcoholism.

Alcoholics have also been found to have an impaired cortisol response to stress, and this is associated with lower scores on measures of problem-solving ability and memory. Another exacerbating factor may come from poorer sleep — recovering alcoholics have been found to have significantly poorer sleep quality.

There is some evidence that women are more vulnerable to the effects of binge drinking and chronic heavy drinking.

Alcohol and the adolescent brain

Binge drinking is particularly evident among young people. Several studies point to effects on executive functions, including attention and working memory. This has consequences for planning and decision-making, as well as memory tasks.

Memory impairment following too much alcohol is particularly common among adolescent drinkers, possibly because of disruption in the hippocampus, which is still developing during adolescence.

Other physiological consequences of teenage binge drinking may be damaged white matter connectivity, and reduced activity of many neurotransmitter genes. There is some indication that some of these effects may persist into adulthood.

Prenatal exposure

Studies suggest that there is no safe dose, nor safe time to drink, for pregnant women, although the timing does affect the nature of the damage. It seems that alcohol is especially damaging for the development of the dopamine system.

Children prenatally exposed to alcohol are not consistently impaired however. A monkey study suggests why — it seems a gene variant makes the carrier more susceptible to the effects of fetal alcohol exposure. The gene has previously been implicated in increased depression risk.

Other research has suggested that children whose mothers are older than 30 years, those whose mothers have alcohol dependence, those whose parents provide a less stimulating environment, and those whose mothers reported drinking during the time of conception, are at greater risk from prenatal alcohol exposure.

It’s also the case that cognitive deficits are not always evident. One study found that children prenatally exposed to moderate-to-heavy levels of alcohol were perfectly competent at simple tasks, but failed when asked to multi-task. Such working memory deficits may partly be a result of slower processing speed.

Hope comes from a finding that two factors can considerably mitigate the negative effects of prenatal alcohol exposure: being diagnosed early in life and being raised in a stable and nurturing environment.

Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder are particularly impaired in mathematical ability, possibly due to specific deficits in memory for numbers and sequences.

Distinguishing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder from other developmental disorders may have got easier, with a simple test that measures eye movement.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Alcoholism's effect on sleep persists

A study involving 42 long-term alcoholics who had not had a drink for up to 719 days (mean age 49 years, 27 men) has found that, compared to controls, alcoholics had significantly poorer sleep quality, measured by a significantly lower percentage of slow wave sleep and significantly more stage 1 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Moreover, estimated lifetime alcohol consumption was significantly related to the scores on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, with higher lifetime consumption predicting less sleep satisfaction. The reduction in slow wave activity was specific to NREM sleep. This could act as an exacerbating factor in alcoholics' cognitive decline.

[792] Colrain, I. M., Turlington S., & Baker F. C. (2009).  Impact of alcoholism on sleep architecture and EEG power spectra in men and women. Sleep. 32(10), 1341 - 1352.

Alcoholics show abnormal brain activity when processing facial expressions

Excessive chronic drinking is known to be associated with deficits in comprehending emotional information, such as recognizing different facial expressions. Now an imaging study of abstinent long-term alcoholics has found that they show decreased and abnormal activity in the amygdala and hippocampus when looking at facial expressions. They also show increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for the failure of the limbic areas. The finding is consistent with other studies showing alcoholics invoking additional and sometimes higher-order brain systems to accomplish a relatively simple task at normal levels. The study compared 15 abstinent long-term alcoholics and 15 healthy, nonalcoholic controls, matched on socioeconomic backgrounds, age, education, and IQ.

[1044] Marinkovic, K., Oscar-Berman M., Urban T., O'Reilly C. E., Howard J. A., Sawyer K., et al. (2009).  Alcoholism and dampened temporal limbic activation to emotional faces. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(11), 1880 - 1892.

Binge drinking affects attention and working memory in young university students

A Spanish study of 95 first-year university students, 42 of them binge drinkers, has found that those who engaged in binge drinking required greater attentional processing during a visual working memory task in order to carry it out correctly. They also had difficulties differentiating between relevant and irrelevant stimuli. Binge drinkers are defined as males who drink five or more standard alcohol drinks, and females who drink four or more, on one occasion and within a two-hour interval. Some 40% of university students in the U.S. are considered binge drinkers.

[231] Crego, A., Holguín S R., Parada M., Mota N., Corral M., & Cadaveira F.
(2009).  Binge drinking affects attentional and visual working memory processing in young university students.
Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(11), 1870 - 1879.

HIV infection and chronic drinking together impair encoding of new experiences

A study involving 40 individuals with HIV, 38 with chronic alcoholism, 47 with both HIV and chronic alcoholism, and 39 controls, has found that although those with only one of these disorders mostly performed at levels comparable to controls on episodic and working memory tasks, those who were both positive for HIV and had a history of chronic heavy drinking were impaired on tests of immediate episodic memory (but not working memory) — meaning that they have trouble encoding new information for long-term memory. The finding is consistent with the fact that the mediotemporal lobe is affected early by both these conditions. Heavy drinking is very common among those infected with HIV.

[440] Fama, R., Rosenbloom M. J., Nichols N. B., Pfefferbaum A., & Sullivan E. V.
(2009).  Working and episodic memory in HIV infection, alcoholism, and their comorbidity: baseline and 1-year follow-up examinations.
Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(10), 1815 - 1824.

Adolescent binge drinking may compromise white matter

An imaging study of 28 teens, of whom half had a history of binge drinking (but did not meet the criteria for alcohol abuse), has found that those who had engaged in binge drinking episodes had lower coherence of white matter fibers in 18 different areas across the brain. The findings add to a growing literature indicating that adolescent alcohol involvement is associated with specific brain characteristics. White matter integrity is essential to the efficient relay of information in the brain.

[1426] McQueeny, T., Schweinsburg B. C., Schweinsburg A. D., Jacobus J., Bava S., Frank L. R., et al.
(2009).  Altered white matter integrity in adolescent binge drinkers.
Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(7), 1278 - 1285.

Alcoholics’ brains maintain language skills at a cost

Despite the damage done by alcoholism to the frontal lobes and cerebellum, areas involved in language processing, alcoholics' language skills appear to be relatively spared from alcohol's damaging effects. A new study of 12 alcoholic males and 12 healthy controls suggests that alcoholics develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain their language skills despite alcohol's damages. The comparable performance on an auditory language task between the two groups was underlain by different neural activity (specifically, the alcoholic group showed greater activity in the left middle frontal gyrus, the right superior frontal gyrus, and the cerebellar vermis). It seems likely that this wider activity comes at the expense of other tasks, thus reducing their ability to multitask.

[926] Chanraud-Guillermo, S., Andoh J., Martelli C., Artiges E., Pallier C., Aubin H. - J., et al. (2009).  Imaging of language-related brain regions in detoxified alcoholics. Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 33(6), 977 - 984.

Drinking alcohol associated with smaller brain volume

It is estimated that brain volume decreases by 1.9% per decade, accompanied by an increase in white matter lesions. Because moderate alcohol consumption has been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, it’s been thought that small amounts of alcohol might also reduce age-related declines in brain volume, although it’s known that large amounts of alcohol will reduce brain volume. However, a large, long-running study, has now found that, even at low levels of alcohol consumption, brain volume was negatively affected. Moreover, although men were more likely to be heavier drinkers, the association between drinking and brain volume was stronger in women.

[1191] Paul, C A., Au R., Fredman L., Massaro J. M., Seshadri S., DeCarli C., et al.
(2008).  Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study.
Arch Neurol. 65(10), 1363 - 1367.

Heavy, chronic drinking can cause significant hippocampal tissue loss

An imaging study of 8 heavy-drinking alcoholics and 8 age and ethnicity matched non-alcoholics (all male) found that total hippocampus volume was significantly reduced among the alcoholics.

[677] Beresford, T. P., Arciniegas D. B., Alfers J., Clapp L., Martin B., Du Y., et al. (2006).  Hippocampus Volume Loss Due to Chronic Heavy Drinking. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 30(11), 1866 - 1870.

Most of the cognitive deficits associated with alcoholism recoverable

Results of a study involving middle-aged alcoholics who have been sober for six months to 13 years, suggest that long-term abstinent alcoholics can recover most of their neurocognitive deficits. However, deficits in spatial-processing abilities continued. Visuospatial processes are important for many daily activities, including driving, reading a map, assembling things, and performing tasks that require spatial orientation. The study doesn’t however know how much damage had been done when the alcoholics ceased drinking; further studies are exploring the recovery of older abstinent alcoholics who ceased drinking at different ages.

[856] Fein, G., Torres J., Price L. J., & Sclafani V. D. (2006).  Cognitive Performance in Long-Term Abstinent Alcoholic Individuals. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 30(9), 1538 - 1544.

Brain atrophy occurs faster in women alcoholics

A study of 34 male and 42 female alcoholics has found that, although the women had been alcoholics for just 5.5 years on average, compared to the average 10.4 years for the men, the women had lost as much proportionate brain volume as the men. The findings are consistent with other studies suggesting that women suffer from the effects of alcohol abuse faster.

[1258] Mann, K., Ackermann K., Croissant B., Mundle G., Nakovics H., & Diehl A. (2005).  Neuroimaging of Gender Differences in Alcohol Dependence: Are Women More Vulnerable?. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(5), 896 - 901.

Drinking for just eight weeks impairs learning and memory in mice

It’s well established that chronic alcohol consumption can produce deficits in learning and memory. A new rodent study, however, is the first to show that continuous drinking for as little as eight weeks can produce deficits in learning and memory that last at least 12 weeks after drinking stopped — “equivalent to a human that drank six to eight beers or one bottle of wine a day every day for six years experiencing learning and memory deficits up to nine years after they stopped drinking alcohol." These deficits were global — that is, they affected long-term memory for every type of task tested. Short-term memory was not affected. Rats who drank for only four weeks did not experience the same effects.

[522] Farr, S. A., Scherrer J. F., Banks W. A., Flood J. F., & Morley J. E.
(2005).  Chronic Ethanol Consumption Impairs Learning and Memory After Cessation of Ethanol.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(6), 971 - 982.

Cognitive effects of binge drinking worse for women

A new study looked at the cognitive effects of binge drinking, which apparently is on the rise in several countries, including Britain and the US. The study involved 100 healthy moderate-to-heavy social drinkers aged between 18 and 30. There were equal numbers of males and females. The study found that female binge drinkers performed worse on the working-memory and vigilance tasks than did the female non-binge drinkers.

[1311] Townshend, J. M., & Duka T.
(2005).  Binge Drinking, Cognitive Performance and Mood in a Population of Young Social Drinkers.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(3), 317 - 325.

Alcohol's damaging effects on adolescent brain function

A number of speakers at Symposium speakers at the June 2004 Research Society on Alcoholism meeting in Vancouver, reported on research concerning the vulnerability of the adolescent brain to the damaging effects of alcohol. Some of the findings presented were:

  • The adolescent brain is more vulnerable than the adult brain to disruption from activities such as binge drinking. Adolescent rats that were exposed to binge drinking appear to have permanent damage in their adult brains.
  • Subtle but important brain changes occur among adolescents with Alcohol Use Disorder, resulting in a decreased ability in problem solving, verbal and non-verbal retrieval, visuospatial skills, and working memory.
  • The association between antisocial behavior during adolescence and alcoholism may be explained by abnormalities in the frontal limbic system, which appears to cause "blunted emotional reactivity".
  • Alcohol-induced memory impairments, such as "blackouts", are particularly common among young drinkers and may be at least in part due to disrupted neural plasticity in the hippocampus, which is centrally involved in the formation of autobiographical memories.

[1238] Monti, P. M., Miranda, Jr R., Nixon K., Sher K. J., Swartzwelder S. H., Tapert S. F., et al.
(2005).  Adolescence: Booze, Brains, and Behavior.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(2), 207 - 220.

Alcoholics can have deficits in visuoperception and frontal executive function despite sobriety

Detoxified alcoholics often have visuospatial and visuoperceptual deficits, characterized by difficulties completing tasks such as putting pieces of a puzzle together or map reading. A new study has found that, even with prolonged sobriety, alcoholics show deficits in visuoperception and frontal executive functioning of the brain. Furthermore, alcoholics utilize a more complex higher-order cognitive system (frontal executive functions) to perform the same tasks as individuals without a history of alcoholism. The potential problem with this is that if that same system is needed for a competing task, alcoholics may be at a disadvantage because that system would otherwise be engaged. The study involved 51 recently detoxified nonamnesic alcoholic men (ages 29 to 66 years) compared with 63 "normal," control men (ages 21 to 70 years).

Fama, R., Pfefferbaum, A. & Sullivan, E. V. 2004. Perceptual Learning in Detoxified Alcoholic Men: Contributions From Explicit Memory, Executive Function, and Age. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(11), 1657-1665.

New brain cells develop during alcohol abstinence

A rat study has found that the detrimental effect of alcohol on the formation of new neurons in the adult rat hippocampus is followed by a pronounced increase in new neuron formation in the hippocampus within four-to-five weeks of abstinence. This included a twofold burst in brain cell proliferation at day seven of abstinence. The findings may have significant implications for treatment of alcoholism during recovery. The discovery of regeneration of neurons in recovery opens up new avenues of therapies aimed at regeneration of brain cells.

[393] Nixon, K., & Crews F. T. (2004).  Temporally Specific Burst in Cell Proliferation Increases Hippocampal Neurogenesis in Protracted Abstinence from Alcohol. J. Neurosci.. 24(43), 9714 - 9722.

Cognitive function of alcohol abuse patients may influence treatment outcome

Years of heavy alcohol consumption are known to impair many abilities generally referred to as “executive functions.” Such functions include judgment, problem solving, decision making, planning, and social conduct. But alcohol affects executive functioning both chronically and acutely. New research has found that alcohol abuse patients show significant deficits in executive functioning (specifically, abstract reasoning, memory discrimination, and effectiveness on timed tasks) during the critical first weeks of abstinence. The finding has implications for treatment programs, as the early phases of most treatment programs for alcohol abusers commonly require working in groups, making plans for the future, inhibiting behaviors related to their addiction, and remembering specific things. It is suggested that clinicians should scale down their expectations of what patients can do until more of their executive functioning comes back. The researchers are now intending to explore how long it takes the majority of people to regain most of their executive functioning.

[194] Zinn, S., Stein R., & Swartzwelder S. H. (2004).  Executive Functioning Early in Abstinence From Alcohol. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 28(9), 1338 - 1346.

Brain damage found among heavy social drinkers

Almost all knowledge about brain damage due to chronic alcohol consumption has been gathered from alcoholics, generally toward the end of an institutionalized treatment program or many months into abstinence. A new study however, uses magnetic resonance technology to examine brain damage in heavy drinkers who are not in treatment and function relatively well in the community. The study found that frontal white matter NAA – generally considered to be a marker of neuronal damage – was lower in heavy drinkers than light drinkers, and was associated with lower executive and working memory functions. Some of the behaviors that could be associated with the metabolite changes include the inability to apply consequences from past actions, difficulties with abstract concepts of time and money, difficulties with storing and retrieving information, and frequently needing external motivators.

[220] Weiner, M. W., Meyerhoff D. J., Blumenfeld R., Truran D., Lindgren J., Flenniken D., et al.
(2004).  Effects of Heavy Drinking, Binge Drinking, and Family History of Alcoholism on Regional Brain Metabolites.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 28(4), 650 - 661.

Even small amounts of alcohol or anesthetics may damage the developing brain

Mouse studies suggest that even small amounts of alcohol or anesthetic drugs can trigger nerve cell death in the developing brain. The brain appears most sensitive to this effect during the development stage known as the brain growth spurt. In humans this lasts from about the sixth month of pregnancy to a child's third birthday. Nerve cells are genetically programmed to commit suicide if they fail to make synaptic connections on time. Alcohol and anesthetic drugs interfere with the brain's neurotransmitter systems and with the formation of those synaptic connections, automatically activating a signal within the neuron that directs it to commit suicide.

Olney, J.W. 2004. Perinatal Drug/Alcohol Exposure and Neuronal Suicide – Public Health Implications. Paper presented February 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Hippocampal damage seen in those with alcoholic memory disorder and those with Alzheimer's

A comparison between the brains of five men with alcoholic Korsakoff's syndrome and the brains of men with Alzheimer's disease as well as the brains of healthy men, found that the brains of all Korsakoff's patients and Alzheimer's patients were comparable in significant volume loss in the hippocampus. Greater hippocampal damage (for Korsakoff's patients) and smaller hippocampal size (for Alzheimer’s) was correlated with poorer memory performance. It is suggested that, although there are of course a number of differences between these disorders, the nature of the memory impairment may be the same. Awareness of the similarities may help detection of both disorders.

[262] Sullivan, E. V., & Marsh L. (2003).  Hippocampal volume deficits in alcoholic Korsakoff's syndrome. Neurology. 61(12), 1716 - 1719.

Alcohol damages day-to-day memory function

A new study involving 763 participants (465 female, 298 males) used self-report questionnaires: the Prospective Memory Questionnaire (PMQ), the Everyday Memory Questionnaire (EMQ), and the UEL (University of East London) Recreational Drug Use Questionnaire, and found that heavy users of alcohol reported making consistently more errors than those who said that they consumed little or no alcohol. More specifically, those who reported higher levels of alcohol consumption were more likely to miss appointments, forget birthdays and pay bills on time (prospective memory), as well as more problems remembering whether they had done something, like locking the door or switching off the lights or oven, or where they had put items like house keys. The study also found a significant increase in reported memory problems by people who claimed to drink between 10 and 25 units each week in comparison to non-drinkers – this is within the ’safe drinking’ limits suggested by U.K. government guidelines.

[1042] Ling, J., Heffernan T. M., Buchanan T., Rodgers J., Scholey A. B., & Parrott A. C.
(2003).  Effects of Alcohol on Subjective Ratings of Prospective and Everyday Memory Deficits.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 27(6), 970 - 974.

Study of alcoholics reveals connection between cerebellum and prefrontal cortex

Two functions commonly compromised by chronic alcoholism are executive functions (such as problem solving, putting things in order, working memory, doing multiple tasks at once) and balance (the ability to walk a straight line or stand on one foot, especially with eyes closed or in the dark). Executive functions are primarily processed in the prefrontal cortex, while balance and postural stability are functions of the cerebellum. Previous studies have shown that the prefrontal cortex and regions of the cerebellum are especially vulnerable to the effects of chronic alcoholism. Although these areas are spatially far apart (the former in the frontal lobes, the latter in the hindbrain), they are connected in a variety of ways, most particularly through the pons and the thalamus. An imaging study of 25 nonamnesic alcoholic men suggests that these connections may compound the damaging effects of alcohol on these brain regions, and that the cerebellum, through these connections, can exert a significant effect on functions of the prefrontal cortex.

[356] Sullivan, E. V. (2003).  Compromised Pontocerebellar and Cerebellothalamocortical Systems: Speculations on Their Contributions to Cognitive and Motor Impairment in Nonamnesic Alcoholism. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 27(9), 1409 - 1419.

Alcoholics' cognitive impairment associated with impaired reaction to stress

The body secretes a hormone called cortisol in response to stress. Areas of the brain involved in memory and problem-solving are responsive to cortisol. A new study has found impaired release of cortisol in recently detoxified alcoholics when performing two tasks known to induce stress: mental arithmetic problems and a "cold pressor" task, which requires submerging one hand in ice water for 90 seconds. This was associated with lower scores on measures of problem-solving ability and memory. The study also found that, among alcoholics, the number of withdrawals from alcohol was the strongest predictor of memory impairments, but not of problem-solving ability. The greater the alcoholics' relative cortisol levels were during alcohol withdrawal, the more likely they were to have low scores on one of the problem-solving tests. Nonalcoholic participants showed a connection between higher post-stress cortisol levels and impaired memory, a finding supported by earlier research.

[340] Errico, A. L., King A. C., Lovallo W. R., & Parsons O. A. (2002).  Cortisol Dysregulation and Cognitive Impairment in Abstinent Male Alcoholics. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 26(8), 1198 - 1204.

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Prenatal dangers

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Too much licorice in pregnancy may affect child's IQ and behavior

A Finnish study involving 321 eight year old children has found that those whose mothers ate more than 500mg of glycyrrhizin per week (found in the equivalent of 100g of pure licorice) had significant decrements in verbal and visuospatial abilities and in narrative memory, compared to those whose mothers consumed less licorice. They were also more likely to have poor attention spans and show disruptive behaviour such as ADHD. The effects on cognitive performance appeared dose related (that is, higher consumption correlated with greater impairment). Glycyrrhizin may impair the placenta, allowing stress hormones to cross from the mother to the baby. These hormones (glucocorticoids) are thought to affect fetal brain development and have been linked to behavioural disorders in children. Consumption of licorice among young women is common in Finland.

Raikkonen, K., Pesonen, A., Heinonen, K., Lahti, J., Komsi, N., Eriksson, J. G., et al. (2009). Maternal Licorice Consumption and Detrimental Cognitive and Psychiatric Outcomes in Children. Am. J. Epidemiol., 170(9), 1137-1146. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwp272.

Vitamin C deficiency impairs early brain development

A guinea pig study has found that newborn guinea pigs subjected to moderate vitamin C deficiency had 30% fewer hippocampal neurons and markedly worse spatial memory than guinea pigs given a normal diet. For several reasons the neonatal brain is thought to be particularly vulnerable to even a slight lowering of the vitamin C level. Vitamin C deficiency is very common in some parts of the world, and even in wealthy nations occurs in an estimated 5-10% of the adult population.

Tveden-Nyborg, P. et al. 2009. Vitamin C deficiency in early postnatal life impairs spatial memory and reduces the number of hippocampal neurons in guinea pigs. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 90 (3), 540-546.

Children of older fathers perform less well in intelligence tests during infancy

Reanalysis of a dataset of over 33,000 children born between 1959 and 1965 and tested at 8 months, 4 years, and 7 years, has revealed that the older the father, the more likely the child was to have lower scores on the various tests used to measure the ability to think and reason, including concentration, learning, memory, speaking and reading skills. In contrast, the older the mother, the higher the scores of the child in the cognitive tests.

Saha, S. et al. 2009. Advanced paternal age is associated with impaired neurocognitive outcomes during infancy and childhood. PLoS Medicine 6(3), e1000040. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000040 
Full text available at

Early maternal experience can affect memory in her offspring

A study of pre-adolescent mice with a genetically-created defect in memory has found that a mere two weeks exposure to a stimulating environment resulted in a reversal of the memory defect. But most surprisingly, it was also found that this effect was passed on to the next generation, even though they had the same genetic defect and even though they had no such experience themselves, and even when they were reared by other mice (not their mothers). It’s worth emphasising that the enrichment occurs for the mother long before she’s fertile, yet still benefits her offspring. The finding adds to many recent studies showing that genes are more malleable than we thought.

Arai, J., Li, S., Hartley, D.M. & Feig, L.A. 2009. Transgenerational Rescue of a Genetic Defect in Long-Term Potentiation and Memory Formation by Juvenile Enrichment. Journal of Neuroscience, 29(5), 1496-1502.

Breaking fish advice during pregnancy may benefit babies

Fears of the effects of mercury have led to government warnings to pregnant women to limit their consumption of seafood. However, a study involving nearly 12,000 women has found that children whose mothers ate the least amount of seafood during pregnancy showed the worst performance on tests of social development and verbal IQ, and beneficial effects were evident among children of women who ate more than the recommended guidelines.

Hibbeln, J.R. et al. 2007. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet,369 (9561), 578-585.

Ingredient commonly found in shampoos may inhibit brain development

An ingredient found in many shampoos and other personal care products (Diethanolamine (DEA)) appears to interfere with normal brain development in baby mice when applied to the skin of their pregnant mothers. DEA appears to block the body's ability to absorb the nutrient choline, which is essential for normal development of the brain. Whether the amounts most people absorb from personal care products would cause harm remains unclear. A list of some products that contain DEA can be found at

Craciunescu, C.N., Wu, R. & Zeisel, S.H. 2006. Diethanolamine alters neurogenesis and induces apoptosis in fetal mouse hippocampus. FASEB Journal, 20, 1635-1640.

Lead exposure leads to brain cell loss and damage years later

A study of 532 former employees of a chemical manufacturing plant who had not been exposed to lead for an average of 18 years has found that the higher their lead levels were, the more likely they were to have smaller brain volumes and greater amounts of brain damage. 36% had white matter lesions. The results confirm earlier findings in this same population that people with occupational lead exposure experience declines in their thinking and memory skills years after their exposure.

Stewart, W.F. et al. 2006. Past adult lead exposure is linked to neurodegeneration measured by brain MRI. Neurology, 66, 1476-1484.

Prenatal exposure to urban air pollutants affects cognitive development

A study of 183 three-year-old children of non-smoking African-American and Dominican women residing in New York City has found that exposure during pregnancy to combustion-related urban air pollutants (specifically, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) was linked to significantly lower scores on mental development tests and more than double the risk of developmental delay at age three.

Perera, F.P. et al. 2006. Effect of Prenatal Exposure to Airborne Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons on Neurodevelopment in the First Three Years of Life Among Inner-City Children. Environmental Health Perspectives, published online ahead of print.
Full text is available at

Prenatal exposure to marine toxin causes lasting damage

A rat study has found that a single dose of the naturally occurring marine toxin domoic acid caused subtle but permanent cognitive damage in rats exposed to the chemical before birth. The effect occurred at levels below those generally deemed safe, and suggest that the toxin might negatively affect unborn children at levels that do not cause symptoms in expectant mothers. It was already known that toxic doses of domoic acid can damage the hippocampus.

Levin, E.D., Pizarro, K., Pang, W.G., Harrison, J. & Ramsdell, J.S. 2005. Persisting behavioral consequences of prenatal domoic acid exposure in rats. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, in press.

Rats infected as newborns vulnerable to memory problems when infected in adulthood

Underscoring the value of good prenatal care, a new rat study has found that rats who experienced a one-time infection as newborns didn't learn as well as adult rats who were not infected as pups, after their immunity was challenged. The findings fit into a growing body of evidence that even a one-time infection can potentially permanently change physiological systems, a phenomenon called "perinatal programming." The findings implicate prenatal infections, as the rats were infected on their 4th day, a time that corresponds, in terms of brain development, with the 3rd trimester in humans. It should be noted that adult rats who were not infected as pups did not suffer memory impairment as the result of adult infection, and those who were infected as newborns were completely normal until they received the second immune system challenge in adulthood. It’s suggested that this phenomenon may help explain some of the individual variability in disease susceptibility.

Bilbo, S.D., Levkoff, L.H., Mahoney, J.H., Watkins, L.R., Rudy, J.W. & Maier, S.F. 2005. Neonatal Infection Induces Memory Impairments Following an Immune Challenge in Adulthood. Behavioral Neuroscience, 119 (1)

Prenatal exposure to solvents associated with negative cognitive effects

A study of 64 children aged 3 to 9 found that those children whose mothers were exposed to organic solvents during their pregnancies had lower scores on certain tests of language, behavior, and cognitive functioning. Organic solvents (used for example in dry cleaning, manufacturing, jobs involving paints and plastic adhesives, nail salons and medical laboratories) are some of the most common sources of workplace chemical exposure reported by pregnant women.

Laslo-Baker, D., Barrera, M., Knittel-Keren, D., Kozer, E., Wolpin, J., Khattak, S., Hackman, R., Rovet, J. & Koren, G. 2004. Child Neurodevelopmental Outcome and Maternal Occupational Exposure to Solvents. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 158, 956-961.

Environmental damage to brains of children

A new report suggests that the brains of children in many parts of Europe are suffering greater damage from environmental risks than previously recognized. A meeting in Malta of European delegates preparing for a ministerial conference on environment and health, being held in Budapest in June, were given preliminary results from a comprehensive study on environmental threats to children's health, being conducted by the WHO and the University of Udine, Italy. The full report is to be published at the Budapest conference. The findings suggest lead is the single most important damaging chemical for children. In 2001, the estimated percentage of European children in urban areas with elevated blood levels (above 10 micrograms per decilitre) ranged from 0.1% to 30.2%.

Vital role in brain development for the nutrient choline

The nutrient choline is known to play a critical role in memory and brain function by positively affecting the brain's physical development through increased production of stem cells (the parents of brain cells). New research demonstrates that this occurs through the effect of choline on the expression of particular genes. The important finding is that diet during pregnancy turns on or turns off division of stem cells that form the memory areas of the brain. Developing babies get choline from their mothers during pregnancy and from breast milk after they are born. Other foods rich in choline include eggs, meat, peanuts and dietary supplements. Breast milk contains much more of this nutrient than many infant formulas. Choline is a vitamin-like substance that is sometimes treated like B vitamins and folic acid in dietary recommendations.
A choline food database is available at:

Niculescu, M.D., Yamamuro, Y. & Zeisel, S.H. 2004. Choline availability modulates human neuroblastoma cell proliferation and alters the methylation of the promoter region of the cyclin-dependent kinase inhibitor 3 gene. Journal of Neurochemistry, 89 (5), 1252-1259.

Prenatal exposure to secondhand smoke associated with greater risk of developmental delay

A new study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has found that children whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy to second-hand smoke have reduced scores on tests of cognitive development at age two, when compared to children from smoke-free homes. In addition, the children exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy are approximately twice as likely to have developmental scores below 80, which is indicative of developmental delay. These differences were magnified for children whose mothers lived in inadequate housing or had insufficient food or clothing during pregnancy. The combined effect results in a developmental deficit of about seven points in tests of cognitive performance.

Rauh, V.A., Whyatt, R.M., Garfinkel, R., Andrews, H., Hoepner, L., Reyes, A., Diaz, D., Camann, D. & Perera, F.P. 2004. Developmental effects of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke and material hardship among inner-city children. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 26 (3), 373-385.

Pre-term labor drug sensitizes brain to pesticide injury

A rat study has found that unborn rats exposed to terbutaline - a drug commonly prescribed to halt pre-term labor and stave off premature birth - suffered greater brain cell damage than those not given the drug upon secondary exposure to the common insecticide chlorpyrifos. This suggests that this drug might leave the brains of children susceptible to other chemicals ubiquitously present in the environment, and may help explain earlier suggestions that children whose mothers are administered terbutaline suffer cognitive deficits.

Rhodes, M.C., Seidler, F.J., Qiao, D., Tate, C.A., Cousins, M.M. & Slotkin, T.A. 2004. Does pharmacotherapy for preterm labor sensitize the developing brain to environmental neurotoxicants? Cellular and synaptic effects of sequential exposure to terbutaline and chlorpyrifos in neonatal rats. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, 195 (2), 203-217.

Impact of prenatal environment on learning abilities

In a fascinating study that points to the importance of environment (including prenatal environment) in determining behavioral and cognitive abilities, embryos from mice with a low response to stress were transferred to high-stress surrogate mice. The two strains of mice differed not only in their response to stress but also in their learning abilities. At birth, the mice were cross-fostered again and reared by either a low-stress mother or a high-stress mother. The mice were tested at three months, and researchers found that the low-stress mice that were transferred as embryos to and also later reared by high-stress females were less likely to explore new environments than those carried and reared by low-stress mothers. The low-stress mice reared by high-stress surrogates also performed more poorly on cognitive tests of their ability to navigate mazes.

Francis, D.D., Szegda, K., Campbell, G., Martin, W.D. & Insel, T.R. 2003. Epigenetic sources of behavioral differences in mice. Nature Neuroscience, 6 (5),445–446.

Fetuses recognize mother's voice in the womb

A study of 60 third-term fetuses found that they could distinguish between their mother’s voice and the voice of a stranger, as measured by changes in heart rate. Previous research has shown that newborns prefer their own mother's voice to that of a female stranger, but this demonstrates that this preference and recognition begins in the womb.

Kisilevsky, B.S., Hains, S.M.J., Lee, K., Xie, X., Huang, H., Ye, H.H., Zhang K. & Wang, Z. 2003. Effects of experience on fetal voice recognition. Psychological Science, 14 (3), 220-224(5).

Cognitive development affected in babies exposed prenatally to cocaine

In the first study to use measures of both the mothers’ self report of their prenatal drug use, and infant meconium, which provided a physical measure of the amount of drug exposure, 415 cocaine-exposed infants born in Cleveland were compared to non-exposed infants on cognitive and motor development until age 2. Infants were tested at 6.5, 12 and 24 months. Mental retardation in the cocaine-exposed children at age 2 was 4.89 times higher than would be expected in the general population. The percentage of children with mild delays requiring intervention was almost double the rate of the high risk, non-cocaine group. The study also found that tobacco exposure had significant negative effects on infant development.

Singe, L.T., Arendt, R., Minnes, S., Salvator, A., Kirchner, H.L., Farkas, K., & Kliegman, R. 2002. Cognitive and Motor Outcomes of Cocaine-Exposed Infants. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287,1952-1960.

Use of ecstasy during pregnancy may produce learning and memory impairments in child

Researchers today reported the first evidence that a mother’s use of MDMA (ecstasy) during pregnancy may result in specific types of long-term learning and memory impairments in her offspring.
The research was conducted by scientists from Children’s Hospital Research Foundation and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, on rats. It appears the damage to offspring occurs only if the drug is taken during a particular critical period of pregnancy.

Broening, H.W., Morford, L.L., Inman-Wood, S.L., Fukumura, M. & Vorhees, C.V. 2001. 3,4-Methylenedioxymethamphetamine (Ecstasy)-Induced Learning and Memory Impairments Depend on the Age of Exposure during Early Development. Journal of Neuroscience, 21, 3228-3235.

Prenatal exposure to Alcohol

Where math takes place normally and in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

An imaging study involving 21 children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder confirms the importance of the left parietal area for mathematical tasks. Children with FASD are particularly impaired in mathematical ability. Brain activity patterns also revealed that the involvement of regions in the left cerebellum and the brainstem in math processing may be specific to children with FASD.

[291] Lebel, C., Rasmussen C., Wyper K., Andrew G., & Beaulieu C.
(2010).  Brain Microstructure Is Related to Math Ability in Children With Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 34(2), 354 - 363.

Possible genetic risk for fetal alcohol disorders

In partial explanation of why children who are exposed to alcohol because their mothers drank during pregnancy are differently affected, new research with rhesus monkeys has found evidence of a gene variant that appears to make the carrier more susceptible to the effects of fetal alcohol exposure. The gene involved is the serotonin transporter gene promoter, and this variant has previously been implicated in increased depression risk.

[499] Kraemer, G. W., Moore C. F., Newman T. K., Barr C. S., & Schneider M. L.
(2008).  Moderate Level Fetal Alcohol Exposure and Serotonin Transporter Gene Promoter Polymorphism Affect Neonatal Temperament and Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis Regulation in Monkeys.
Biological Psychiatry. 63(3), 317 - 324.

Post-natal choline supplements may reduce cognitive effects associated with prenatal alcohol exposure

A rat study has found that giving choline to rat pups exposed to alcohol during the equivalent of the third trimester, when there’s a spurt in brain growth, significantly reduced the severity of alcohol-related over-activity and spatial learning deficits. The benefits lasted months after choline treatment, suggesting that choline’s effects are long-lasting. Further studies are needed to establish exactly how choline helps and how late in development it can reduce fetal alcohol effects, and then, whether the effects also apply to humans. However, although early postnatal choline may reduce learning deficits and hyperactivity following early alcohol exposure, it doesn’t help reduce motor coordination deficits.

Thomas, J.D. et al. 2007. Choline Supplementation Following Third-Trimester Equivalent Alcohol Exposure Attenuates Behavioral Alterations in Rats. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121 (1), 120-130.

Eye movement tasks can be used to assess fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) cover a wide array of adverse developmental outcomes in children due to prenatal alcohol exposure and is harder to diagnose than the more severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Now new research indicates than simple eye-movement tasks can be used to assess individuals with FASD.

Green, C.R. et al. 2007. Deficits in Eye Movement Control in Children With Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 31 (3), 500–511.

Numbers, sequences pose problems for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome children

An assessment of 50 Canadian children aged six to 15 years, who had been diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, has revealed that they had specific deficits in memory for numbers and sequences, which may contribute to common math difficulties faced by these children. The study also found differences between Aboriginal children and Caucasian children with FASD.

[1041] Rasmussen, C., Horne K., & Witol A.
(2006).  Neurobehavioral Functioning in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
Child Neuropsychology. 12(6), 453 - 453.

Prenatal exposure to alcohol linked to lower I.Q.

Analysis of data from the Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Project, an examination of prenatal substance use among women who attended a prenatal clinic from 1983 to 1985, has found that even light to moderate drinking – especially during the second trimester – is associated with lower IQs in African-American offspring at 10 years of age, but not Caucasian children. The difference was not due to differences in the amount or pattern of alcohol use during pregnancy or by differences in socioeconomic status.

[364] Willford, J., Leech S., & Day N.
(2006).  Moderate prenatal alcohol exposure and cognitive status of children at age 10.
Alcoholism, Clinical and Experimental Research. 30(6), 1051 - 1059.

New 'eye movement' test may help treat fetal alcohol syndrome

At present there are no objective diagnostic tools that can be used to distinguish between children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and those with other developmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Many of the behavioural tests used to assess children with FASD are geared to white, middle-class English-speaking people. Now a pilot study involving 25 children aged 8-12 has found that the specific brain abnormalities associated with FASD can be identified using a simple test that measures eye movement.

Reynolds, J. & Green, C. 2005. Presented at the annual meeting of the international Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C.

Key neural system at risk from fetal alcohol exposure

A study of pregnant rhesus monkeys has found that prenatal exposure to alcohol has pronounced effects on the development and function later in life of the brain's dopamine system. Dopamine is a key chemical messenger in the brain. The study indicates there is no safe dose, nor safe time to drink, for pregnant women. The monkeys consumed the equivalent of one to two drinks a day. Abnormalities in dopamine functioning can contribute to addiction, memory, attention and problem solving, and more pronounced conditions such as schizophrenia. The nature of the damage is significantly different depending on the timing of the alcohol exposure.

[511] Kraemer, G. W., Schneider M. L., Moore C. F., Barnhart T. E., Larson J. A., DeJesus O. T., et al.
(2005).  Moderate-Level Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Alters Striatal Dopamine System Function in Rhesus Monkeys.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(9), 1685 - 1697.

Prenatal alcohol exposure can lead to lasting changes in cognitive processing

A study involving 337 African-American children, 7.5 years of age, selected from the Detroit Prenatal Alcohol Longitudinal Cohort, has found that although children known to have been prenatally exposed to moderate-to-heavy levels of alcohol were able to perform as well as other children when tasks were simple – such as naming colors within a timed period – when pressed to respond quickly while having to think about the response, their processing speed slowed down significantly. The observed deficits in working memory are thought to be partly a result of the slower processing speed. The study also confirmed earlier suggestions that number processing is particularly affected.

[946] Burden, M. J., Jacobson S. W., & Jacobson J. L.
(2005).  Relation of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure to Cognitive Processing Speed and Efficiency in Childhood.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 29(8), 1473 - 1483.

Prenatal alcohol exposure has effects far beyond fetal alcohol syndrome

Numerous studies have documented IQ deficits in children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). Little research, however, has found IQ deficits in children with alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), who generally exhibit less severe neurobehavioral deficits than children with FAS. A new study demonstrates that what was interpreted in prior studies as a lack of any IQ effects in nonsyndromal, alcohol-exposed children was really due to a differential effect of exposure related to several risk/protective factors. Specifically, children whose mothers are older than 30 years, those whose mothers have alcohol dependence, those whose parents provide a less stimulating environment, and those whose mothers reported drinking during the time of conception, are at greater risk from prenatal alcohol exposure.

Jacobson, S.W., Jacobson, J.L., Sokol, R.J., Chiodo, L.M. & Corobana, R. 2004. Maternal Age, Alcohol Abuse History, and Quality of Parenting as Moderators of the Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on 7.5-Year Intellectual Function. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(11), 1732-1745.

New hope for children with fetal alcohol syndrome

A study of 415 people diagnosed with either fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or fetal alcohol effect (FAE) found two factors greatly increased the chances of escaping the negative experiences common to those with such problems - being diagnosed early in life and being raised in a stable and nurturing environment. These findings offer hope in a situation that many have regarded as hopeless.

[1051] Streissguth, A. P., Bookstein F. L., Barr H. M., Sampson P. D., O'Malley K., & Young J K.
(2004).  Risk factors for adverse life outcomes in fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects.
Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: JDBP. 25(4), 228 - 238.

Light drinking during pregnancy may lead to learning and memory deficits in adolescents

The dangers for the developing child of heavy drinking during pregnancy are well-known, but an ongoing longitudinal study of 580 children and their mothers has found that even light to moderate drinking may have significant effects on the cognitive development of the child – effects which show up in adolescents in subtle difficulties with learning and memory, specifically in the auditory/verbal domain.

Willford, J.A., Richardson, G.A., Leech, S.L. & Day, N.L. 2004. Verbal and Visuospatial Learning and Memory Function in Children With Moderate Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(3), 497-507.

Deficits associated with prenatal alcohol exposure can be seen as early as infancy

Most of the research on arousal and attention deficits caused by prenatal alcohol exposure has been conducted with children. A new study examined different components of attention through use of heart-rate data collected from six-month-old infants. The findings indicate that slower processing speeds and arousal-regulation problems exist as early as infancy.

Kable, J.A. & Coles, C.D. 2004. The Impact of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Neurophysiological Encoding of Environmental Events at Six Months. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 28(3), 489-496.

Prenatal exposure to alcohol affects executive functioning in young children

A study of 316 four-year-old children whose mothers had used various combinations of cocaine, alcohol, and/or marijuana during pregnancy, found that children in the alcohol-exposed group performed significantly worse at an inhibition task than the children in the control group (no maternal use of such substances during pregnancy). This effect persisted even after controlling for prenatal drug exposure, postnatal environmental factors, and child verbal IQ, and suggests that children exposed prenatally to alcohol find it more difficult to inhibit inappropriate behaviors. This may partly explain why such children are at greater risk for social and academic problems. The subtle effect may not be noticeable in most children, but for those who operate at lower levels of functioning, the effect may make all the difference between coping and not. This effect occurred with prenatal alcohol exposure of less than one drink per day. In the United States, it is estimated that among women who know they are pregnant, 2% continue to drink at a moderate level and 5% continue to have at least two drinks per week.

[560] Noland, J. S., Singer L. T., Arendt R. E., Minnes S., Short E. J., & Bearer C. F.
(2003).  Executive Functioning in Preschool-Age Children Prenatally Exposed to Alcohol, Cocaine, and Marijuana.
Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. 27(4), 647 - 656.

Motor skill training may help children with fetal alcohol exposure

The disorders associated with fetal exposure to alcohol are a leading cause of mental retardation and developmental delay.Research with rats has looked at the effect of motor skill training on the development of rats similarly exposed to alcohol at a critical stage of their prenatal development. Those rats trained in increasingly difficult challenges involving motor skills were found to develop 20% more synapses in the cerebellum than the rats that did not train, even though they had the expected 30% loss of Purkinje cells. The research brings hope that, despite the damage done to the motor function, it may be possible to rehabilitate these deficits if caught early enough.

[1369] Klintsova, A. Y., Scamra C., Hoffman M., Napper R. M. A., Goodlett C. R., & Greenough W. T.
(2002).  Therapeutic effects of complex motor training on motor performance deficits induced by neonatal binge-like alcohol exposure in rats: : II. A quantitative stereological study of synaptic plasticity in female rat cerebellum.
Brain Research. 937(1-2), 83 - 93.

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More evidence moderate alcohol consumption helps stave off dementia

April, 2011

More evidence that a moderate amount of alcohol helps protect against Alzheimer’s —but not vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline.

A review of 23 longitudinal studies of older adults (65+) has found that small amounts of alcohol were associated with lower incidence rates of overall dementia and Alzheimer dementia, but not of vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline. A three-year German study involving 3,327 adults aged 75+ extends the evidence to the older-old.

The study found alcohol consumption was significantly associated with 3 other factors that helped protect against dementia: better education, not living alone, and absence of depression. Nevertheless, the lower risk remained after accounting for these factors.

The ‘magic’ amount of alcohol was between 20-29g, roughly 2-3 drinks a day. As in other studies, a U-shaped effect was found, with higher risk found among both those who consumed less than this amount of alcohol, and those who consumed more.




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Moderate drinking before trauma leads to more flashbacks

March, 2010

A study has found that those given alcohol equivalent to around 2 glasses of wine experienced more flashbacks from a video of serious road traffic accidents than those given twice as much alcohol, and those given none. The findings support the view that flashbacks reflect the reactivation of sensory memory in the absence of contextual memory.

A study in which nearly 50 participants consumed either alcohol (.4 or .8 g/kg, around 2 or 4 glasses of wine) or a placebo drink, performed a memory task, then were shown a video of serious road traffic accidents, has found that those given the smaller amount of alcohol experienced more flashbacks during the next week than those given the larger amount of alcohol, and those given no alcohol. Although that may seem to suggest drinking a large amount of alcohol might result in less involuntary re-experiencing of the event, excessive alcohol produced an overall reduction in memory which may be even more distressing if they then imagine a 'worse case scenario.' The findings support the view that flashbacks reflect the reactivation of image-based egocentric representations (based on sensory features) in the absence of a corresponding allocentric representing (incorporating the spatiotemporal context). Alcohol appears to impair allocentric (contextual) memory first.




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Everyone looks the same when you drink

March, 2010

It’s well established that we are better at recognizing faces of our own racial group, but a new study shows that this ability disappears when we’re mildly intoxicated.

It’s well established that we are better at recognizing faces of our own racial group, but a new study shows that this ability disappears when we’re mildly intoxicated. The study tested about 140 university students of Western European and east-Asian descent and found that recognition of different-race faces was unaffected by alcohol, yet both groups showed impaired recognition of own-race faces, bringing it down to about the same level of accuracy as for different-race faces. Those given a placebo drink were unaffected.





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