Cerebellum is responsible for balance and muscle coordination, and is quite vulnerable to injury from alcohol during development.
The scientists found that despite alcohol helping in lowering the amount of oxygen in the blood of the mother, the damage to the foetal cerebellum is caused by the drop in pH, and not by the lack of oxygen.
Experiments on sheep helped Ramadoss and his colleagues to show that the damage can be prevented by blocking acid sensitive potassium channels, known as TASK channels, that lead into the Purkinje cells.
Foetal alcohol syndrome is a condition in which maternal drinking during pregnancy injures the brain of the developing foetus, and may cause cognitive impairments and difficulty in regulating the behaviour in kids having this syndrome.
Maternal drinking lowers the blood pH of both the mother and the foetus, making the blood more acidic, which according to researchers is responsible for the damage caused Purkinje cells of the foetal cerebellum.
The researchers used 56 pregnant sheep, and induced the change in pH in some sheep using alcohol, while in others they manipulated the extracellular pH.
It was found that alcohol produced a 45 percent reduction in Purkinje cells of the foetal cerebellum, while the pH changes alone produced a 24 percent decrease.
However, when the researchers administered a drug, doxapram, to block the TASK channels leading into the Purkinje cells, they were able to prevent the change in pH in the foetal cerebellar cells and prevented any reduction in the number of these cells.
"This study demonstrates that direct pharmacological blockade of TASK 1 and TASK 3 channels protects the most sensitive target of fetal alcohol exposure, cerebellar Purkinje cells," concluded the authors.
The study, "Acid Sensitive Channel Inhibition Prevents Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Cerebellar Purkinje Cell Loss," is published in the latest issue of the American Journal of Physiology.