Prenatal alcohol exposure appears to increase an infant's stress response

  • Little is known about the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) on stress systems in infants.
  • New findings indicate that the greater the PAE, the greater the cortisol, autonomic, and emotional responses to social challenges in young infants.
  • The days between conception and pregnancy recognition may be especially critical for fetal stress-response development.

Although animal studies have shown that prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) is linked to changes in stress-response systems, little is known about the effects of PAE on stress systems in human infants. New findings indicate that the days between conception and pregnancy recognition may be critical for the development of stress-response systems among infants whose mothers consume alcohol.

Results are published in the December issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Studies on rats and monkeys have shown that the offspring of mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy develop both elevated and depressed stress hormone responses to challenges," said David W. Haley, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the study's corresponding author. In one of the few human studies to look at this issue, he added, stress hormones were elevated both at rest and in response to a physical challenge in the infants when compared to infants whose mothers abstained.

"Stress seems to be mediated through many systems involving neurochemical regulation and hormonal controls," added Sterling K. Clarren, CEO and scientific director of the Canada Northwest FASD Research Network. "Prenatal alcohol exposure seems to play a role in many of these systems, both directly and indirectly, with presumably life long effects. The fact that these alterations are associated with very early gestational exposures is a very important observation for basic understandings of brain development, for public health warnings, and possibly


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