Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, now referred to as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), happens when a child has been exposed to alcohol in utero. FASD presents differently in different children depending on how much alcohol was consumed during gestation.
Alcohol passes through the bloodstream of the mother and directly into her baby. While one drink for an adult female is not enough to cause harm, for a child in utero, where brain development is occurring, even a single drink can be enough to cause memory issues, facial abnormalities, and learning disabilities. New research from the NYU School of Medicine suggests that lithium chloride, a drug traditionally used for bipolar disorder, could be an effective treatment for FASD.
The team at NYU used a mouse model to simulate alcohol exposure. The brain development of a newborn mouse is similar to that of a newborn human infant, so they are an accurate model of gauging the effect of alcohol on the brain. The researchers gave the animals an amount of alcohol 15 minutes after birth. Some of the mice were then given one dose of lithium chloride while another group of mice was untreated. Typically, newborn mice that are exposed to alcohol demonstrate hyperactivity and sleep deficits when they grow to adulthood. There are also cognitive deficits and memory loss in these mice. The mice treated with the lithium did not show the expected sleep disturbances and hyperactive behaviors and were 25% less likely than the untreated mice to have poor memory and cognition.
Sleep issues are also a problem with children who have FASD and the study did reveal some of the impacts on the brain and sleep. Mice that were treated with the drug slept uninterrupted for as many as 10 hours per day, while untreated mice woke up frequently, sometimes as much as 50 times in an hour. The team working on this study has conducted previous research on sleep disturbances and brain performance and found that disrupted sleep was a major factor in FASD, and it resulted in significant cognitive damage. Co-senior study investigator Donald Wilson, Ph.D. explained, "Our study showed that lithium chloride prevented many of the damaging neurological effects of alcohol abuse on the still-developing brain, especially the impact on the parts of the brain controlling sleep."
While the results of this study are encouraging, the authors stress that lithium cannot be considered as a preventative measure, since it's contraindicated in people who also consume alcohol. Also, it has organ toxicity issues that make it dangerous for pregnant women. While more studies are necessary, researchers must go forward carefully, since human trials in expectant mothers would be very risky and would have to adhere to strict protocols.
Mariko Saito, Ph.D. and the co-senior study investigator said that the chemistry that happens between the brain and lithium chloride could be a valuable part of developing treatments that work, but with fewer side effects. Dr. Saito stated, "Lithium chloride is known to block many pathways that lead to brain cell death, while promoting others that lead to survival, like brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Further experiments are needed to determine if chemicals that stimulate BDNF production also blunt the effects of alcohol abuse in newborn mammals." The video below has some information from the CDC on FASD and how it impacted one family. Hopefully, more research can be conducted to help children and families who deal with this disorder.