Small amounts of alcohol or anesthetics may damage the developing brain

that developmental interval, we cannot be certain that those cells would not have died at some later time."

On the other hand, Olney points out it is clear that large doses of alcohol can trigger such extensive death of nerve cells that it causes a permanent reduction in the size of the brain and long-term cognitive impairment. Olney and colleague David F. Wozniak, Ph.D., research associate professor of psychiatry at Washington University, have demonstrated these permanent deficits in mice and rats, and they believe the same type of pathological process can explain the harmful effects of alcohol on the developing human brain, a condition known as fetal alcohol syndrome.

"It's the best explanation that has been developed so far for the well-known, devastating effects of alcohol on the human fetal brain," Olney says.

Although translating effects from rats and mice to humans is difficult, Olney believes it is unlikely that a single glass of wine would cause substantial damage, even if expectant mothers consumed such small amounts of alcohol regularly.

"A single glass is not a problem, but if one glass leads to another and then another on the same day, that is a different matter," Olney says. "Because then blood alcohol levels remain above the toxic threshold for too long, and nerve cells commit mass suicide."

He believes the most prudent advice is to completely avoid alcoholic drinks during pregnancy because, he says, it is not clear how rats, mice and humans compare in sensitivity to alcohol.

Olney's research has demonstrated that rat and mouse brains are sensitive to this toxic effect during a development stage known as the brain growth spurt. Called synaptogenesis because it is the time when brain cells form most of their synaptic interconnections, the brain growth spurt in humans lasts from about the sixth month of pregnancy to a child's third birthday. In rats and mice, synaptogenesis occurs during the first few

Contact: Jim Dryden
Washington University School of Medicine

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