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Alcohol-exposed children who lack the characteristic facial features of fetal alcohol syndrome may still suffer from attention problems, hyperactivity, aggression, and psychiatric illnesses.
Many recent studies indicate that alcohol doesn't uniformly interfere with the function of every cell in a fetal brain.
Moreover, it targets particular biochemical pathways vital to the development, function, migration, and survival of certain nerve cells, says Kenneth Warren of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Bethesda, Md.
Better knowledge of underlying mechanisms may help researchers figure out how to rescue cells or predict which infants are most at risk from alcohol exposure, he says.
When researchers started looking at the brains of youngsters with fetal alcohol syndrome, the damage seemed so pervasive that the investigators assumed alcohol must affect every system in the developing brain.
One of the major changes in the alcohol field in the last 10 years has been the identification of proteins that alcohol might interact with directly," says Michael E.
Charness and his colleagues gave specific nerve cells growing in laboratory cultures alcohol concentrations equivalent to those resulting when a woman has one to two drinks.
They suggest three possible factors: Babies may simply dislike the flavor of alcohol; alcohol may impair their sucking ability; or alcohol may temporarily decrease maternal milk production.
He adds that while the findings suggest that nurslings like certain flavors and dislike others, the research doesn't rule out the possibility that certain ingredients in garlic or alcohol may increase or decrease a mother's milk production.
This may be the start of a biochemical description of the alcohol effect.