In a breakthrough that may help to ease the worries of women around the world, a team of researchers from Cornell University has found a drug that could lessen the damaging effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in babies.
Fetal alcohol syndrome disrupts the formation of nerve cells in the developing brain of the fetus. This is a particularly poignant issue in the last trimester of pregnancy and during the first few years of the baby’s life. It is at this time that fetal alcohol syndrome does the worst damage to the brain.
Researchers tested the drug, called nicotinamide, in mice after giving them a dose of alcohol relatively comparable to what a fetus would be exposed to in the womb of a women drinking excessively. What they found was that after following up with the nicotinamide two hours after the alcohol dose, there were no behavior abnormalities and the number of dead brain cells were similar to that of normal brain development.
Nicotinamide is already used to treat some autoimmune conditions.
The researchers said however that they are still in the early stages regarding further testing and development of the drug to treat fetal alcohol syndrome. They are still unsure as to whether or not the drug would work on humans and are continuing to support efforts to encourage women to abstain from drinking during pregnancy.
Experts agreed that the drug does not give pregnant women an excuse to begin drinking regularly or excessively. This is because there is no known “safe” amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. “Pregnant women should at all times ensure that they’re eating the most appropriate, healthy, fresh food alongside a recommended exercise regime to ensure they’re at their optimal health during pregnancy,” said Dame Karlene Davis, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives. “FAS is often called the number one preventable birth defect. And the RCM believes that it still is – by following a healthy diet that will benefit both mother and child.”
Dr Raja Mukherjee, a fetal alcohol syndrome expert with St. George’s Hospital Medical School, London, said researchers would continue to study the complete effects of the nicotinamide drug. “The piece suggest you can block one drug (alcohol in the form of ethanol) with another drug which may have its own side effects and cause different types of harm during pregnancy,” he said. “”Surely the safest way, as the piece suggests, is to not take anything in the fist place rather than block the effects of one thing with another. This is not to detract from the importance of the work for those people – i.e. chronic alcoholics – who find it impossible to stop.”
There is currently no treatment for fetal alcohol syndrome. Symptoms of the disease range from large, abnormal facial features, stunted growth, problems with behavior such as attention deficit disorder or hyperactivity, delayed development of learning skills and problems with the central nervous system.
According to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the disease affects one in 100 live births each year – a number that equals about 40,000 infants affected with FAS annually. The organization also says that just three years ago, fetal alcohol syndrome cost the United States $5.4 billion costs – $3.9 billion were direct and $1.5 billion were indirect.
In fact, the NOFAS says that a baby affected with FAS can incur health costs in excess of $800,000 during the course of their lifetime.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most common cause of mental retardation that is not caused by a genetic disorder in Western society.