IUPUI Researching Dangers Of Prenatal Alcohol Abuse

October 07, 1998

INDIANAPOLIS -- Just how harmful is alcohol abuse during pregnancy?

Charles R. Goodlett of the Purdue School of Science at Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis will use an $870,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health for a groundbreaking study of how prenatal alcohol abuse damages the developing brain.

Goodlett's research will try to identify damage to specific neurological circuits in the brain that control particular types of learning.

IUPUI Chancellor Gerald L. Bepko said the NIH grant "underscores our continued commitment to nationally significant health research important to improving quality of life and of making IUPUI a health campus in support of Indiana's growing emphasis on the health industry."

Through experimental work that exposes developing rats to alcohol, researchers know that brain development is significantly impaired by prenatal alcohol abuse, said Goodlett, an associate professor of psychology.

Goodlett's research with Mark Stanton of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and professor Joseph Steinmetz, chair of the psychology department at IU-Bloomington, has already shown binge-like alcohol exposure in rats during a period of development comparable to weeks 24-35 of a human pregnancy causes severe structural and functional damage to the brain.

"But we don't have the complete details," Goodlett said. "We don't know how well or how poorly the brain adapts over the life span to the damage produced by alcohol abuse during pregnancy."

Not having those details is a big problem for both scientists and clinicians. Among women who drink heavily during pregnancy "there is an enormous variability of outcome," Goodlett said.

Fewer than 10 percent of women who drink heavily during pregnancy give birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a group of birth defects that can include mental retardation, facial malformations and dysfunction in the central nervous system, the IUPUI researcher said.

But a far greater number of newborns -- up to 100,000 a year -- may suffer from prenatal exposure to alcohol, although they do not have the full range of FAS symptoms. Goodlett's research could lead to clinical protocols that help identify children suffering from fetal alcohol effects and increase the effectiveness of treatment and rehabilitation programs for them.

The first phase of Goodlett's study will conduct animal experiments to look for alcohol-induced loss of neurons in four areas of the cerebellum and brain stem. The second phase will evaluate the same areas for long-lasting deficits in "synaptic plasticity," or the ability of the neurons to change their signaling processes over the course of learning.

The goal, Goodlett said, is "to identify specific consequences of alcohol exposure during specific times of pregnancy ... we will have definite evidence of particular kinds of damage reflected in the structure and function of the brain."

School of Science Dean David L. Stocum said that NIH award is the latest product of a decision five years ago by the psychology department to focus on research into the psychobiology of addictions.

"We emphasize this because alcohol and drug abuse are huge social problems, particularly among the young," said Stocum. "Our location in Indianapolis, with proximity to the IU School of Medicine and large pharmaceutical companies, strategically position the School of Science to compete successfully for additional federal funding on the study of addictive drug abuse."

Goodlett's work is vital because "no one has made any kind of systematic study of the effects of alcohol on specific brain circuits important to learning ... this is an excellent example of how basic research can be used to try to solve a problem that is of great importance to this community and nationwide," Stocum added.

For more information on the research project, contact Goodlett at (317) 274-6772.

Purdue University

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