B vitamin may protect against fetal alcohol syndrome

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Pregnancy

A form of vitamin B3, nicotinamide, could reverse the brain defects
due to maternal drinking, suggests a mice study from Cornell

Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) affects about one in every 1,000 children born in the US, which equates to over 400,000 newborns. One in 12 American women admit to drinking alcohol when pregnant, and a shocking 1 in 30 admitted binge drinking.

The new study, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal Public Library of Science - Medicine​ (Vol. 3, Issue 4), investigated the effects of alcohol on the brain development of mice, and the effects of nicotinamide on the defects.

"In this study, we have demonstrated that the administration of nicotinamide after ethanol treatment in early postnatal development prevents alcohol-induced hyperactivity and memory impairment in adult mice,"​ wrote researchers Alessandro Ieraci and Daniel Herrera.

The researchers injected mice pups with ethanol shortly after birth, at which stage the brain development is approximately the same as a human baby during the third trimester.

As expected, the ethanol caused brain cell death and behavioral abnormalities as adults. However, when the pups were injected with nicotinamide after the ethanol injection, the number of dead brain cells matched that of normal brain development.

The researchers claimed that the protective effect of nicotinamide appeared to function at the mitochondrial level, by preventing the caspase-3 activation, an executioner protease that is needed for cell death.

Putting the results into context, Dr. Herrera said: "Despite attempts to increase awareness of FAS, consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, especially binge drinking, has increased in recent years and currently there are no effective [ways] to prevent or revert the devastating effects of FAS. Our findings offer hope that nicotinamide may fill this need."

The journal notes in a summary of the research: "This means that it might be possible, some years from now, to prevent some of the alcohol damage to the baby if the mother gets nicotinamide treatment soon after she was drinking alcohol."

It is not even clear if use of nicotinamide would be applicable to humans, but previous clinical trials with high doses of the vitamin did not report any adverse effects.

The journal rightly stresses: "FAS causes severe birth defects that are entirely preventable if a pregnant woman doesn't drink. Changing the behavior of pregnant women therefore must be and will remain the focus of medical care."

Nicotinamide has been used for many years in various dietary supplements.

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