Alcohol Toxic to Placenta During Pregnancy

MedicalResearch.com: Interview with:
Sylvia Lui
Tommy’s Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre
The University of Manchester

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?

Answer: The research shows women who drink alcohol at moderate or heavy levels in the early stages of their pregnancy might damage the growth and function of their placenta – the organ responsible for supplying everything that a developing infant needs until birth

MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?

Answer: Yes, as we did not expect the strong effect on placental function. The results add weight to existing research in this area – that alcohol has negatively effects pregnancy or fetal development, but previous studies have used the upper limits of alcohol concentration, and at levels that would not be found in the human body. Our results show that the damage caused by alcohol may start with an abnormally developing placenta, and that it can happen very early on in pregnancy – perhaps before a woman knows she is pregnant – in the very early weeks and at drinking levels as found in an average population.

The aim of this project was to investigate and provide clarity on the effects of alcohol at low, moderate and ‘binge’ levels, on the developing placenta and hence pregnancy and the baby.

MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?

Answer: It can often be a few weeks before a woman discovers she’s pregnant, and this research shows that moderate drinking during those vital first weeks can have a big impact on the development of the baby. Low levels had no effect and perhaps awareness of alcohol units should be a key factor in educating women about their pregnancy. However research shows that it is difficult for people to judge how much they are drinking according to the recommended daily units, and are often incorrect. It is also recognised that alcohol is one of the most well-known, and most avoidable, toxin in pregnancy.

Many pregnancies are unplanned, but for those actively planning a family this research raises questions about whether women should consider their alcohol intake even before they fall pregnant.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?

Answer: Our main focus in this study was the effect on placental growth and placental taurine transport, as they are major contributors towards fetal development. Future studies on other placental functions that are known to be indicators of a healthy pregnancy, such as hormone production, would further show how alcohol and acetaldehyde impacts pregnancy. Changes in hormone levels are known to change maternal metabolism, hence a successful pregnancy and fetal well-being.

Future research would also include alcohol and acetaldehyde’s effects on placental barrier function. The placenta is a barrier in preventing unwanted substances crossing from mother to baby. Though alcohol and acetaldehyde freely crosses the placenta to the baby, how they affect the placenta’s ability to acts as a barrier against other toxins is unknown.

On a broader scale, future investigations would include possible preventative therapies such as diet supplements. Studies in animals have shown that folic acid is protective against effects of alcohol. Extra taurine intake, after alcohol, has been shown to decrease brain lesions in animal models. Further work is required to investigate whether supplementation, through the mother, has any side effects, or can improve pregnancy outcomes where there may have been alcohol exposure. There are many questions to be still answered, but the placenta is a valuable means to investigate pregnancy-related problems due to its crucial role in a healthy pregnancy.

Citation:

Detrimental effects of ethanol and its metabolite, acetaldehyde, on first trimester human placental cell turnover and function.” S. Lui, R.L. Jones, N.J. Robinson, S.L. Greenwood, J.D. Aplin, C.L. Tower was published on 4 February in PLoS One