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New study provides first linkage of fetal alcohol exposure and enlarged heart

August 25, 2003 (Bethesda, MD) -- Cardiac malformations exist in children with fetal alcohol syndrome and animal models of prenatal alcohol exposure, and an enlarged heart (cardiac hypertrophy) has been found in children with fetal alcohol syndrome. The high incidence of heart defects indicates that alcoholism during pregnancy has to be considered as a serious and preventable cause of congenital heart disease.

Moreover, low birth weight is linked to a later emergence of cardiovascular and metabolic medical disorders, including ischemic heart disease, hypertension, insulin resistance, and non-insulin-dependent diabetes. Accordingly, many scientists have suspected that changes in the fetal environment produce physiological adaptations by the fetus that lead to small birth weight. Such adaptations, known as fetal programming, may be beneficial before birth but may also produce adverse outcomes for years to come.

One consistent feature found in animal research models is that low birth weight is associated with prenatal exposure to glucocorticoid steroids (any compound capable of significantly influencing intermediary metabolism, such as promotion of hepatic glycogen deposition, and of exerting a clinically useful anti-inflammatory effect). Even brief prenatal exposure to elevated glucocorticoids can result in permanent adverse changes in the adult offspring's cardiovascular system. Glucocorticoids are important in normal development, but excessive exposure through the mother leads to reduced birth weight.

Scientists have also found that very low levels of steroids produced by the adrenal glands (corticosterone or (Cort)) are sufficient to normalize birth weight and increase fetal Cort levels. However, removal of one or both adrenal glands in the mother will cause reduced birth weight and decreased levels of maternal plasma Cort.

As fetal adrenals start functioning during the last week of gestation, maternal Cort may affect fetal
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Contact: Donna Krupa
djkrupa1@aol.com
703-527-7357
American Physiological Society
25-Aug-2003


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