Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is the result of drinking alcohol during pregnancy. The condition is actually an umbrella term encompassing a number of problems and consequences which occur as a result of excessive alcohol consumption by a pregnant mother. The effects are catastrophic: alcohol can easily cross the placental wall and its toxic effect can stunt fetal growth and have other severe consequences, mainly on the brain by stunting its development. Alcohol is a toxin as are its metabolites.
Symptoms & signs of FAS
There is a very long list of signs and symptoms associated with the condition and the following is not exhaustive. Diagnosis of the condition is complex and involves assessing first and foremost whether the mother consumed any alcohol in pregnancy. Other symptoms include:
- Low birth weight
- Small head circumference and other minor facial anomalies, including a smaller upper head and jaw
- Growth deficiency or stunted growth
Any pregnancy woman should stop drinking the moment she discovers she is pregnant. Alcoholics should seek counselling and medical attention is they find out they are pregnant and have been regularly inebriated. Genetic studies have shown a strong genetic link between alcohol consumption, alcoholism, dipsomania and our DNA. Certain genes increase a person’s genetic predisposition to alcoholism. Further to this, scientists are interested in learning about the genes that actually deter someone from becoming an alcoholic. The frequency of the gene which would help deter or reduce the incidence of alcoholism is found in many Asians. This gene helps in the synthesis of an enzyme, aldehyde dehydrogenase, which helps efficiently metabolize alcohol. Genetic predisposition testing and extensive analysis of the certain genetic sequences on the human genome have shown that many American and Caucasians appear not to have this gene.
Effects on the brain
Magnetic resonance imaging has made it possible to identify the areas of the brain which are affecting causing the condition we refer to as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
- Damage to the basal ganglia, an area associated with learning and memory, results in an underdeveloped or entirely lacking special working memory.
- Underdeveloped cerebellum in fetal alcohol syndrome means an inability to coordinate and balance as well as poor motor skills.
- Further to this, the corpus collasum, a part of the brain of major importance, connecting the left and right hemispheres and involved in communication is underdeveloped or altogether absent.
Fetal alcohol syndrome is a leading cause of mental retardation. Despite the widespread awareness of the negative effects of drinking alcohol, a surprising number of expectant mothers still continue to drink whilst pregnant. Some mothers are unaware of being pregnancy for the first few weeks and thus may unwittingly consume alcohol whilst carrying a baby – as soon as you discover you are pregnant stop all alcohol.
How can the syndrome be tested for?
In the earlier stages, tests may reveal what is known as a heart murmur. This is an atypical sound of the fetal heart during pregnancy, often perceived with a stethoscope as a swishing or heaving sound. These abnormal sounds are not uncommon in fetuses but in some cases they may indicate heart problems. Other tests include blood tests to verify the amount of alcohol present in a sample of blood. This can help determine the extent of the alcohol intoxication.
Fetal alcohol syndrome and consequences are irreversible. The number of babies with fetal alcohol syndrome that are born without any mental retardation are very, very few. The only sensible advice possible is to eliminate alcohol before getting pregnant; for heavy drinkers, birth control is the best option.