NIAAA: The effects of alcohol use during pregnancy on an unborn child are well known. However, a recent NIAAA-funded study in rats has shown that a mother’s alcohol use before conception also could have negative effects on her child’s health and response to stress during adulthood. To study the effects of preconception alcohol use, the research team, led by Dipak Sarkar, Ph.D., at Rutgers University, gave female rats 4 weeks of access to a diet containing 6.7 percent alcohol, which raised their blood alcohol levels similar to that of binge drinking in humans.
Alcohol was then removed from the rats’ diet, and they were bred
3 weeks later. After the rats’ offspring reached adulthood, the
researchers used standard laboratory techniques to evaluate their
response to stress, anxiety-like behaviors, changes in levels of stress
regulatory genes and protein hormones, as well as epigenetic
changes—chemical modifications to DNA that occur in the absence of
changes in sequence and can alter gene function.
The team found that offspring of rats that were exposed to
alcohol before conception had increased levels of stress hormones in
their blood in response to an immune challenge and changes in the
expression and epigenetic profiles of genes that play a role in
regulating stress responses in their brains. However, the researchers
observed changes in anxiety-like behaviors only in the male offspring.
Previous research has indicated that epigenetic mutations may
be passed from parent to child and also that epigenetic mutations may
play a role in the expression of anxiety-linked behaviors and response
to stress. Alcohol problems are known to run in families, and increased
alcohol consumption in humans has been associated with increased
Taken together, these findings suggest that epigenetic changes
in the mother as a result of alcohol misuse before conception may be
passed on to her offspring. These changes could have lifelong effects on
a child’s response to stress.
Jabbar, S.; Chastain, L.G.; Gangisetty, O.; Cabrera, M.A.;
Sochacki, K.; and Sarkar, D.K. Preconception alcohol increases offspring
vulnerability to stress. Neuropsychopharmacology 41(11):2782–2793, 2016. PMID: 27296153