Drinking in pregnancy a worry

University of Otago senior lecturer in anatomy Dr Ruth Napper (centre) and physiology Teaching...
University of Otago senior lecturer in anatomy Dr Ruth Napper (centre) and physiology Teaching Fellow Erin Hoskins observe a trace of brain waves produced by Deirdre Kirkman (66), during Brain Day activities on Saturday. Photo by Jane Dawber.
The long-term effect on children's developing brains arising from binge drinking during pregnancy is a matter of "serious concern", University of Otago researcher Dr Ruth Napper says.

Dr Napper, who is a senior lecturer in anatomy and structural biology, was one of a several speakers involved in Brain Day activities at Otago University on Saturday.

During her talk, Dr Napper said that Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) among children, arising from maternal drinking during pregnancy, involved a strictly-defined series of characteristics, including a distinctive series of facial features.

However, a major study, conducted among primary school children in Italy, had shown that in addition to the classically-defined FAS youngsters, there was a significantly larger group of children, without the facial characteristics, who had nevertheless also experienced neurological damage resulting from a broader Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.

Her own research with animal models had shown that significant death of fetal neurons could result from a single drinking bout.

"I was absolutely blown away by the number of dead cells I could see," she said.

In some cases, teachers who wondered why their pupils were having trouble performing certain learning tasks could be encountering the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

More research was needed, but given the extent of drinking in New Zealand there was also scope for more community awareness and discussion about the broader effects of drinking during pregnancy.

Dr Ruth Empson, an Otago University physiologist who co-ordinated the university event, said they had again proved "very successful", with several hundred people attending the talks and other activities.

The Dunedin events were supported by the Neurological Foundation and the university's Brain Health and Repair Research Centre.


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