Why Women Who Drink During Pregnancy Increase Their Child's Risk Of Addiction

Recently at the University of Buffalo a senior research scientist Roh-Yu Shen has been studying the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol and the effects it can have on their life.

He has found that if a fetal baby is exposed to alcohol it can increase their brains reaction to addictive substances later in life.

“The end result is that the dopamine neurons in the brain become more sensitive…” he said.

This is related to endocannabinoids, cannabis-like chemicals that the brain produces on it’s own.

“By understanding the role endocannabinoids play in increasing the brain’s susceptibility to addiction, we can start developing drug therapies or other interventions to combat that effect and, perhaps, other negative consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure,” said Shen.

It is well known that women should not use any drugs or alcohol during their pregnancy. This is the most common method in preventing any birth defects and disorders.

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) are a cause of behavioral issues. It can also open doors to other mental health disorders such as impulse control, anxiety, ADHD, and depression.

“After the prenatal brain is exposed to alcohol, the endocannabinoids have a different effect on certain dopamine neurons which are involved in addicted behaviors than when brain is not exposed to alcohol,” he said.

“The end result is that the dopamine neurons in the brain become more sensitive to a drug of abuse’s effect. So, later in life, a person needs much less drug use to become addicted,” Shen explained.

The Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the brain is where things like reward, attention, addiction process.

When a baby’s brain is exposed to alcohol while still in the womb it decreases the effect of the endocannabinoid receptors. This means that the excitatory synapses will only become stronger. Shen has found that this is where the person can e at high risk for addiction even if they only try a little bit of an addictive substance.

Shen has received a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for these important studies so that he can further research this topic.

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