“Minding the Brain” is a podcast series on cognitive and brain science, hosted by Kim Hellemans, Chair of the Department of Neuroscience, and Jim Davies, professor in the Cognitive Science department at Carleton University. Recently, Executive Director of CanFASD, Audrey McFarlane, was featured on a podcast episode to talk about the impact of alcohol on the developing brain.
Dr. Hellemans begins by highlighting that alcohol is a teratogen, meaning that it causes birth defects. The exact way alcohol acts on the brain is still unclear, but there are 3 suggested modes of action:
- Alcohol consumed by the mother can cross the placenta and affect the fetus
- Alcohol raises stress hormones in the mother, which can also cross the placenta and stress the fetus
- Alcohol disrupts the effectiveness of vitamins and minerals consumed by the mother, which are important for proper growth and development of the baby
Alcohol affects a developing fetus in many ways:
- Primarily, alcohol affects the nervous system (i.e., brain). The nervous system starts developing 3 weeks after conception, and the brain keeps developing after the baby is born
- It seems that the ‘stress pathway’ is significantly affected by alcohol; therefore, prenatal alcohol exposure makes the baby more sensitive to stress
- Areas of the brain that regulate motivation, emotion, and decision-making are affected by prenatal alcohol exposure, leading to the behavioural outcomes of impulsivity and difficulty understanding consequences
There are many factors that can affect how alcohol is absorbed, such as genetics, and how much the mother ate before drinking (e.g., alcohol is absorbed slower with food in the stomach). Because there is no known safe level of alcohol to consume while pregnant, CanFASD recommends that it is safest not to consume alcohol when pregnant, or trying to become pregnant.
Audrey McFarlane also discussed how FASD is diagnosed in Canada on the podcast:
- There is not a single test to diagnose FASD, so it takes a team of professionals to assess the individual.
- Confirmation of prenatal alcohol exposure is needed for a diagnosis, which can be difficult if the child is in foster care or has been adopted
- Most provinces consider FASD a disability, therefore there are resources and supports available to individuals diagnosed with FASD
- Early diagnosis is important for receiving proper supports to help the individuals fulfill their potential
- You can find FAQs about diagnosis, by province, on CanFASD’s website.
FASD prevention, myths and other topics are also discussed. You can listen to the full podcast here.