Alcohol consumption during pregnancy modifies the brain structure of the fetus and could delay language development


A new Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) study has revealed that alcohol consumption, even in low or moderate amounts, during pregnancy can change the baby’s brain structure and delay its development. The study results will be presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) Annual Meeting.


For the study, researchers analyzed MRI scans of 24 fetuses with prenatal alcohol exposure, ranging in gestation from 22 to 36 weeks. The mothers who participated in the research filled out the – anonymous – questionnaires from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS), resulting from a surveillance project by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American health departments, and the T-ACE Screening Tool , a protocol that identifies the extent of alcohol consumption with four questions.

In alcohol-exposed fetuses, total fetal maturation score (fTMS) was significantly lower than in age-matched control fetuses, and right superior temporal sulcus (STS) shallower. The right superior sulcus is involved in social cognition , audiovisual integration, and speech perception .

“We found the greatest changes in the temporal brain region and the STS,” Dr. Kasprian said. “We know that this region, and in particular the formation of the STS, has a major influence on language development in childhood.”


According to the researchers, the delayed brain development of the fetus could be specifically related to a delayed stage of myelination and less distinct gyrographies in the frontal and occipital lobes.


The myelination process is essential for the functioning of the brain and nervous system. Myelin protects nerve cells, allowing them to transmit information faster. Important developmental milestones in children, such as rolling over, crawling and processing language, are directly linked to myelination.

Gyrification refers to the formation of folds in the cerebral cortex. This folding expands the surface area of ​​the cortex with limited space in the skull, allowing for increased cognitive performance. As gyrification decreases, functionality decreases.


Brain changes have been observed in fetuses even at low levels of alcohol exposure

The researchers added that 17 of the 24 mothers who underwent the study reported drinking alcohol relatively infrequently , with an average consumption of less than one alcoholic beverage per week, but that despite the low frequency they were able to “detect significant changes in these fetuses based on prenatal MRI,” says Dr. Kienast.

“Pregnant women should strictly avoid alcohol consumption,” said Dr. Kienast. “As we demonstrated in our study, even low levels of alcohol consumption can lead to structural changes in brain development and a delay in brain maturation.”

The researchers hope to be able to meet the unborn at an older age, in order to better assess the consequences of alcohol on their development. “However, we can hypothesize that the changes we discovered contribute to the cognitive and behavioral difficulties that can occur during childhood.”

  • Drinking During Pregnancy Changes Baby’s Brain Structure. (


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