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Alcohol exposure during conception can impact placenta development

A team of researchers has found that alcohol consumption by a pregnant mother can damage the placenta as early as conception. The study linked early alcohol exposure to issues with the placenta, such as inhibited growth.

The placenta plays a critical role in the health and nutrition of the fetus by providing it with nutrients and oxygen. The placenta also removes waste from the baby’s blood. Poor development of the placenta can restrict fetal growth, resulting in complications such as low birth weight.

While the risks of alcohol during the later stages of pregnancy have been studied extensively, the effects of exposure during the initial stages are not as well understood. Dr. Jacinta Kalisch-Smith teamed up with Professor Karen Moritz at the University of Queensland to investigate.

“We wanted to know whether early alcohol exposure could affect the development of the early embryo and the placenta. Using a rat model, we assessed the ability of the embryo to implant into the uterus, and, later, how well blood vessels formed in the placenta,” explained Dr. Kalisch-Smith.

This approach allowed the scientists to examine changes which occurred throughout a rat’s pregnancy. The study revealed that alcohol consumption between the four days before and the four days after fertilization restricted the growth and function of the placenta.

“We found early alcohol exposure reduced blood vessel formation in the placenta, and this led to fewer nutrients being delivered to the embryo,” said Dr. Kalisch-Smith. The placentas of female embryos were found to be particularly susceptible, exhibiting as much as a 17-percent reduction in size and a 32-percent drop in blood vessel formation.

“This has implications for human health by helping to explain, in part, why babies exposed to alcohol in the womb are often born small,” said Dr. Kalisch-Smith. “It is important to understand the causes of low birth weight, because it has been shown to be an independent risk factor for diseases later in adulthood, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and obesity.”

The study is published in the journal Development.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Shutterstock/George Rudy

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