Alcohol Affects Brain Circuitry in Pregnant Women

As if women needed any more motivation to avoid drinking during pregnancy a new study has been released by neuroscientists and the University of California which proves that alcohol affects the brain circuitry of pregnant women. And for the baby the effects are even greater, prenatal exposure to alcohol, the study found disrupts major features of brain development and can lead to increased anxiety and poor motor functions.

According to the groundbreaking study conducted by the team at University of California, Riverside, prenatal exposure to alcohol significantly altered the expression of genes and the development of a network of connections in the neocortex which is the part of the brain responsible for high-level thought and cognition, vision, hearing, touch, balance, motor skills, language, and emotion.

When tested on mice prenatal exposure caused the wrong areas of the brain to be connected with each other, the researchers found. These findings contrast the belief widely held by some that small amounts of alcohol during pregnancy is acceptable.

The following excerpt from an article on explains:

“If you consume alcohol when you are pregnant you can disrupt the development of your baby’s brain,” said Kelly Huffman, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside and lead author of the study that appears in the Nov. 27 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, the official, peer-reviewed publication of the Society of Neuroscience. Study co-authors are UCR Ph.D. students Hani El Shawa and Charles Abbott.

“This research helps us understand how substances like alcohol impact brain development and change behavior,” Huffman explained. “It also shows how prenatal alcohol exposure generates dramatic change in the brain that leads to changes in behavior. Although this study uses a moderate- to high-dose model, others have shown that even small doses alter development of key receptors in the brain.”


This research is significant because although researchers in the past believed that ethanol exposure from a pregnant woman’s consumption of alcohol would impact the child’s brain and cognitive development, researchers have now proven that there is a connection between exposure to alcohol and the disruption of neural networks, resulting in changes in behaviour.

The post also explains:

Huffman’s team found dramatic changes in intraneocortical connections between the frontal, somatosensory and visual cortex in mice born to mothers who consumed ethanol during pregnancy. The changes were especially severe in the frontal cortex, which regulates motor skill learning, decision-making, planning, judgment, attention, risk-taking, executive function and sociality.


As researchers explained the neocortex region in mammals is similar, so in mice and humans it can be compared however human processing is more complex.

For pregnant women it is best to abstain from alcoholic drinks completely rather than choose to have one or two drinks every now and then because as research proves even moderate drinking may have an impact on the foetus and even if it doesn’t, it is better to be safe than sorry.

Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is a growing disorder and the side effects and symptoms are varied in the children it affects including facial deformities, cognitive, behavioural and motor disorders because of neurobiological damage during the brain’s early development as well as mental retardations, reduced intelligence, learning disabilities, anxiety and depression later in life.