University of Delaware
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Brain Trust

Fetuses and alcohol don't mix
Can baby's brain overcome the effects of mom's drinking?

Anna Klintsova

Anna Klintsova is working to understand the extent of damage alcohol can cause on the developing brain and whether interventions can help improve the damage that occurred before birth.


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Even women who are aware of the damage they might cause their baby by drinking alcohol while pregnant often think that the danger has passed after the first several months.

And that's what concerns neuroscientist Anna Klintsova, whose research focuses on fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and the broader condition known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). While FAS, characterized by a baby's facial and cranial abnormalities, does develop after heavy drinking in the early months of pregnancy, FASD is characterized by other difficulties—including effects on learning and self-control—and can occur later in the fetus's development.

Klintsova, an associate professor of psychology at UD whose work is being supported by the new Delaware Center for Neuroscience Research, uses an animal model to investigate the effects of what in a human subject would be binge drinking during the final trimester of pregnancy.

"By that time, the mother has often had some ultrasounds and maybe some genetic testing, and she's been told that the fetus is healthy," she says. "So she might relax and think it's OK to drink a little. But there are many factors that affect how a particular person processes alcohol, and you never know if those two glasses of wine will be harmful."

Klintsova uses a rat model to study the damaging effects of alcohol on the developing brain and on altered behavior. She is seeking to understand the extent of damage alcohol can cause and whether interventions—in particular, providing a stimulating environment to those affected by FASD—can help improve the damage that occurred before birth.

She investigates these questions at a behavioral level, testing the motor abilities and memory of alcohol-exposed rats, and at cellular and sub-cellular levels, to see how the stimulating environment improves the neuron connections in the brain.

"Neurons not only have to be generated, they also have to survive," Klintsova says. "In an alcohol-damaged brain, they don't survive as well. But new neurons do survive better after this kind of super-stimulating experience." The rats with which she works get that experience by sharing large, multi-level housing with other rats and with a generous supply of toys and activities.

Her latest studies, she says, "show a clear connection between structure and function" within the brain.

Klintsova has been researching the effects of alcohol on a fetus since 1995, when she began collaborating with William T. Greenough. Now professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, Greenough is a pioneer in the study of brain plasticity and the concept that the brain is subject to change not only in early childhood but also throughout the lifespan. When he decided to expand his research beyond that of the normal brain and also investigate the damage that occurs from alcohol, he asked Klintsova to contribute her expertise on the formation of new synapses in the brain. The two have worked together since then, and Klintsova now leads the project.

She notes that FAS and FASD are relatively new diagnoses, with FAS only recognized as a condition in the 1970s, and that many babies—especially in countries with a culture of drinking alcohol—are still born with alcohol-related damage.

"I think it's still a big problem," Klintsova says. "And I think it needs to be addressed."