New Blood Testing Offers Early Detection of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Related Disorders
A woman’s alcohol consumption during pregnancy is a well-known contributor to a a myriad of negative health effects in an unborn child. However, the extent of the damage done to a fetus is hard to predict.
What Are Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)?
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are characterized by multiple physical, emotional, and mental disabilities that can affect a child’s development and future wellness on a large scale. The most severe form of FASD is simply know as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Features of FASD vary from each child to the next, but physical symptoms may include facial changes, smaller head size, as well as height and weight that is below average. Cognitive and behavioral problems may also occur, including impairments of attention span, memory, and speech development.
According to a public release from the University of California, in the U.S. and other parts of the west, an estimated that 2-5% of school-aged children may be affected by FASD.
Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a fact sheet early this year which stated that “up to 1 in 20 US school children may have FASDs.” In some countries, that number is even higher.
And unfortunately, many women may not know they are pregnant while they continue to engage in heavy alcohol use – indeed, around 50% of pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned.
It is these early weeks, however, that are among the most important – but we also know that early intervention can minimize the extent of FASD’s effects.
A New Approach
The true extent of FASD effects are often not known until the child fully develops. This hinders interventions that may help children overcome some impairments, and limits parental awareness of the difficulties their child is facing.
Current “testing” for fetal alcohol syndrome and related disorders is not terribly accurate. For example, while in utero, doctors may examine the unborn infant’s face for defects on ultrasound. However, the absence of physical manifestations of FASD does not, by any means, ensure the baby is unaffected.
Recently, however, a new blood test has been designed by a team of researchers from the U.S. and the Ukraine, intended to address this issue. Moreover, to better measure the extent of damage done to the infant earlier.
Prof. Rajesh Miranda, of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, study co-author, regarding barriers to diagnosis:
“It’s a huge problem, but we might not realize the full scope because infants born with normal-looking physical features may be missed, making many cases difficult to diagnose early.”
For the test, Researchers examined birth outcomes for 68 pregnant women from clinics in the Ukraine. Blood samples were drawn, and information was garnered from the women’s health histories and alcohol consumption levels in the 2nd and 3rd trimesters.
After analyzing the data, researchers found remarkable differences in specific markers in the mother’s blood. That is, exposure to alcohol in the early stages of pregnancy alters the number of small, circulating RNA molecules, or microRNAs.
These changes were even more marked in mothers whose child exhibited cognitive or physical signs of fetal alcohol syndrome in the first year of life.
“Collectively, our data indicate that maternal plasma miRNAs may help predict infant outcomes and may be useful to classify difficult-to-diagnose FASD subpopulations.”
Currently, the extent of FASD development is difficult to predict, because the same amount of exposure to alcohol in infants can vary dramatically in terms of effects. Moreover, some women who consume significant amounts of alcohol may have a child who is very affected, or completely normal.
According to researchers, having a certain, measurable biomarker can help determine if early intervention is required.
Although FASD is not curable, certain interventions, such as good nutrition, perinatal healthcare, appropriate infant care, and special education can improve outcomes of children affected by FASD.
Other potentially beneficial treatments include medication, counseling, and physical therapy.
Results are promising, and researchers intend to continue examining larger samples of mothers.
Of note, due to unawareness of my pregnancy, I was a mother who consumed alcohol in the early stages of my son’s life. He was born premature and with a minor heart defect, but has otherwise developed normally.
I do not know if my alcoholism caused these effects. I do remember being very upset at the prospect of him developing signs of fetal alcohol syndrome. Fortunately, however, at age 10 he is mentally and physically healthy, so perhaps we were among the lucky,
I see great potential in blood testing for fetal alcohol syndrome and related disorders, because there are a wide range of effects possible, which may or may not manifest at any given severity. The earlier we can detect a problem, the more likely we can improve outcomes for both the parents and the child.
More About The Study
The study consisted of research teams from the University of California-San Diego School of Medicine, Texas A&M College of Medicine, and the Omni-Net Birth Defects Prevention Program in Ukraine. Their findings are published today in the science journal PLOS One.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology