A Binghamton University psychology professor is working with drunken rats to prove that the manifestations of fetal alcohol syndrome, until now thought to be a chronic condition, are in some cases reversible. Her work could lead to improved outcomes for hundreds of thousands of children suffering from the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation and birth defects.
FAS affects 1 in 100 live births or as many as 40,000 infants each year, according to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. An individual with fetal alcohol syndrome can incur a lifetime health cost of over $800,000. In 2003, fetal alcohol syndrome cost the United States $5.4 billion-direct costs were $3.9 billion, while indirect costs added another $1.5 billion.
Anna Klintsova, assistant professor of psychology, is leading a team of researchers in developing ways to help those suffering from the body and mind-altering effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in order to help them rehabilitate from the scars their mother’s actions have left.
Throughout the first few months of pregnancy, most mothers are careful about their every action. They eat healthy foods, decrease stress in their lives and moderately exercise, all in preparation for delivery of a healthy baby. The one percent of American children born each year facing a life filled with ailments and emotional scars resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome, however, stand as unfortunate proof that not all pregnant females share the same priorities. Research shows that taking drugs, smoking cigarettes and drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol can have detrimental effects on a fetus.
“I will never be able to understand how or why a mother could intentionally harm her child,” said Klintsova, who joined the University in 2002. “Females often don’t understand the detrimental affects their slight actions will have on the lives of their children.”
For nearly eight years, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Illinois, Klintsova has engaged in FAS research, a confirmed ailment leading to damage to a fetus’s central nervous system during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Resulting side effects include facial malformations, developmental damage and impairment to motor skills.
“The brain is rapidly developing when most of the neurons are forming those structures,” she said. “A growth spurt occurs during the third trimester of pregnancy and that is the period where the effect of alcohol is quite detrimental.”
While many people believe that alcohol would potentially kill the fetus in the early stages of development, Klintsova said many of those afflicted do survive — faced with life-altering ailments such as severe facial abnormalities, lower IQ, clumsiness, brain damage, social problems, depression and drug and alcohol problems. She has learned that FAS is high among Native American populations, especially in New Mexico, where she says evidence proves that alcoholism is an established trend.
In a small laboratory in Science 4, some of Klintsova’s most active and diligent researchers are the newborn rats she feeds alcohol-milk cocktails during their first days of life. The exposure mimics the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome.
Using what she refers to as an Olympic obstacle course, rats are timed and rated for their ability to complete different physical challenges — from crossing narrow bridges to climbing a strand of rope. The accuracy and time needed to complete the different tasks demonstrate how alcohol has altered the rodents’ brain activities.
Since a rat is only in a womb for 21 days, Klintsova and her researchers — six undergraduates, one graduate student and a technician — begin the rodents’ intoxication early to make it equivalent to the third trimester in a human fetus. In terms of brain development, the rats are born at approximately the beginning of the human third trimester, so the introduction of small amounts of alcohol begins within the first four days of life.
“We let them sort of adapt a little and grow a bit from birth to day four,” she said. “Then through the ninth day of life, they begin to binge drink. What happens is that they are knocked out significantly. They become really drunk.”
A month later, the rats, which are now at an age equivalent to a teenager or young adult, are exposed to a complete physical challenge to test their every move, speed and motor skills. In their small containment area, they must first walk parallel bars, later running on a rotating rod and climbing a rope, Klintsova said.
“We demonstrated that they are significantly worse in their skills when they are exposed to alcohol,” Klintsova said. “Alcohol is definitely an altering factor.” Rehabilitation to the cerebellum, the section of the brain which controls motor skills and coordination, begins immediately. The researchers then train the animals on the acrobatic obstacles, repeatedly showing them over 20 days how to correctly perform the tasks. “We train them again and again until we begin to notice improvement,” she said.
“In terms of humans, it is harder to show progress in children because it’s difficult to obtain permission to work with children … obviously the greatest advantage would be to do that,” she said. “A child’s nervous system is very plastic and children could be very susceptible to more interventions like that.”
In a world where no cure exists, Klintsova hopes that her research will lead to changes. “The conclusion that we can make is that the intervention must be very, very targeted,” she said. “If we want to improve a certain behavioral function, then we need to use training that is aimed at that particular function of the brain.”
Though she thinks targeted interventions could improve outcomes for children with FAS, Klintsova said the only way to keep a fetus safe is by not consuming any alcohol or drugs while pregnant. “When the fetus is fully formed and all the parts of the body could be seen by an ultrasound some people think that is okay and that a few glasses of wine will not harm the baby,” Klintsova said. The risk of binge drinking is just as real late in pregnancy as it is earlier on, she said.