"We have used embryonic neural crest cells, which are very sensitive to ethanol," said Dr. Shao-yu Chen, a member of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology and lead author of the new report.
"In a cell culture system, ethanol induces the death of these cells. But when we place antioxidants into the culture together with ethanol, the cells are protected from cell death." Chen also has shown that ethanol-induced cell death is related to free radical generation. "We have used superoxide dismutase and vitamin E and found that in the presence of ethanol both agents reduce free radical production," he said.
Chen and Sulik have extended their cell culture research to a whole embryo culture system. In this technique, early mouse embryos are grown in the laboratory and exposed to various levels of ethanol and antioxidants. Embryos are then monitored for evidence of cell death and abnormal development. "Using this method, we also showed that SOD can diminish ethanol-induced cell death and subsequent malformations," Chen said.
As to the new study, Sulik said, the implications apply directly to people with alcoholism. "The nutritional status of alcoholics isn't the best. People who are alcoholic by definition can't control their drinking and often cannot quit drinking during pregnancy.
"And so the practical point of this paper is that perhaps we can diminish some of the problems that might exist if the nutritional status of alcoholic mothers improves. It would be great if these women would supplement their diets with a daily multivitamin."
However, just like alcohol, even too many vitamins (especially vitamin A) can be harmful to a fetus, Sulik said. "The idea of possibly adding a