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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Alcohol is a teratogen. A teratogen is an agent that can cause malformations of an embryo or fetus. Continuous heavy drinking during pregnancy causes Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). FAS is the number one recognized cause of mental retardation. When expectant mothers drink during their pregnancy, the alcohol carries to all organs, tissues, and passes through membrane and fetal blood systems. Because of this, the alcohol goes straight to the fetus and all its developing tissues and organs. The amount of alcohol concentration in the fetus is the same amount, or sometimes more, as the mothers’. The liver of an adult can process alcohol at the rate of one ounce every two hours, while the liver of the fetus is not able to process alcohol as quickly. Sometimes it takes nearly twenty-four hours.

Not all women who drink during their pregnancy give birth to children with FAS, even those who drank frequently. Some child that are born to alcoholic mothers appear to be normal as an infant but develop physical, intellectual, and psychological problems as they grow older, due to exposure of alcohol as a fetus. According to most studies, there is no such thing as a safe amount of alcohol consumption.

The effects of alcohol on the infant vary in each trimester. The first trimester is the most critical stage. The earlier the exposure, the greater the risk for FAS. In the second trimester, miscarriage is a huge risk. In the third trimester, the fetus normally experiences rapid growth and substantial growth. The mother’s consumption of alcohol could impair the infant’s growth. This is also the time where the most important part of the brain development occurs. According to research, the brain and central nervous are at the greatest risk during the third trimester.

Children born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome develop symptoms such as: low birth weight, small head size, narrow eye slits, flat midface, low nasal ridge, loss of groove between nose and upper lip, muscle problems, bone and joint problems, genital defects, heart defects, and kidney defects.

In addition to physical handicaps, FAS also affects the central nervous system. The child develops symptoms such as mental retardation, alcohol withdrawal at birth, poor sucking response; sleep disturbances, restlessness, irritability, and learning disabilities.

FAS also affects the child’s behavior, causing behavioral impairments. One of the behavior traits effect by FAS is the child’s verbal learning. The child has difficulty with language and memory. Studies showed that children and teens with FAS learned fewer words than normal, but were able to recall information learned. FAS-related learning problems happen during the initial stages of memory formation. Once the formation is finished, verbal information can be remembered and subject to normal rates of forgetting. This helps distinguish FAS from Down syndrome.

Another behavioral trait affected by FAS is visual-spatial learning. The child does poor on learning spatial abilities. For example if the child were to remove an object from somewhere, he would have great difficulty putting the object back to its original place.

The next behavioral impairment is attention. Attention problems happen most often because of prenatal exposure. In several cases, FAS is often mistaken for attention defect hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and treated incorrectly. Children with ADHD have difficulty focusing and sustaining attention over a certain period, while children with FAS have difficulty moving their attention from one task to another.

The child processes information slower than the average child does. The brain processes slower, less efficient information.

Not all children with FAS have mental retardation. A recent study showed that sixty-one adolescents and adults with FAS revealed IQ scores with a range of 20 to 105 with an average of 68. Fifty-eight percent of these individuals had an IQ score of seventy or below.

There is no cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, but the question is, Can it be treated? Birth defects related to alcohol use are permanent. Surgery can repair some of the physical problems, and school programs can improve mental and physical developments.

How can FAS be prevented? Research has shown that pregnant women will reduce or cease their alcohol consumption if they are made aware of the harmful effects of alcohol on their infants. However, the best way to avoid fetal alcohol syndrome is not to drink alcohol during any part of the pregnancy. Even small amounts of alcohol can cause FAS.

by Mia Pleasant


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