A few glasses of wine in the first few weeks of foetal life, generally before a woman knows she's pregnant, increases cell death, thereby leading to foetal malformations, say a leading researcher.
The analysis led by Dr. Erhard Bieberich, biochemist in the Medical College of Georgia Schools of Medicine and Graduate Studies suggests that alcohol consumption increases cells death in foetus, with only few cells are then left to properly form the face and possibly the brain and spinal cord.
"It's well known that when you drink, you get a buzz. But a couple of hours later, that initial impact, at least, is gone," said Dr. Erhard Bieberich, biochemist in the Medical College of Georgia Schools of Medicine and Graduate Studies.
Cell death likely results from alcohol disturbing the metabolism of the lipids that help the hollow wad of stem cells that forms in the first day of life find direction and purpose.
He believes that the damage results from the death of neural crest cells, versatile cells that travel a lot during development, ultimately helping form bone, cartilage, connective tissue, the heart and more.
These cells are developing at the same time as neural tube cells that form the brain and spinal cord. Consequently, the facial abnormalities in a newborn also may foretell problems with learning, memory, vision, hearing and more
"There is always a very delicate balance between newly formed cells and dying cells," said Bieberich.
"It's a very active period of that balance, because usually you develop a surplus of tissue then later melt it back down to acquire a specific shape."
Taking the hand as an example he said, "The digits form because the inter-digital tissue dies. If it did not die, we would have paddles instead of hands with fingers."
"We are not saying that every pregnant woman who drinks three or four glasses of wine in a short period will have a baby with birth defects, but it elevates the risk," he added.