Drinking during pregnancy has yet another consequence: premature delivery

w birth weight. Low-birthweight infants (weighing about 5.5 pounds) are at higher risk of death or long-term illness and disability (such as respiratory illnesses, impaired postnatal growth and neurodevelopmental problems) than are infants of normal birthweight. The poor performance of the United States in the international ranking of infant mortality rates is mainly due to high rates of premature birth and associated low birth weight, according to the December 1995 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. These rates have changed little during the past 50 years and may even be on the rise. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, preterm births in 1995 increased among white mothers but declined among black mothers to the lowest level since the mid-1980s. In general, however, black women remain almost twice as likely to have a preterm birth as white women do.

Aside from the health consequences of premature delivery, there are also significant economic costs. "Prematurity is the most common cause of admissions into the neonatal intensive care unit," said Dr. Sokol. "Neonates spend tremendous lengths of time in neonatal intensive care units, and these costs add up to a very big hit on the national cost of healthcare."

Cook's study of pregnant mice looked closely at the relationship between alcohol and two factors involved in pregnancy and the process of labor; one is the hormone progesterone and the other is a hormone-like factor called prostaglandin F2a. Researchers already knew that decreased levels of progesterone as well as increased levels of prostaglandins could induce preterm birth in animals. Researchers discovered that alcohol could decrease progesterone and increase prostaglandins. However, Cook and her colleagues also wanted to see what role a recently identified enzyme called prostaglandin H synthase-2 (PGHS-2) might play in alcohol-induced preterm labor.

Cook explained that "if we see t

Contact: Jocelynn L. Cook, Ph.D.
Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

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