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Researchers assessed 28 newborns -- 14 whose mothers drank heavily during pregnancy and 14 whose mothers were light drinkers or abstainers. The children exposed to alcohol in the womb showed a "blunted response" to painful heel-lance blood collection.
"Our study had three key findings," Tim F. Oberlander, a professor in the developmental pediatrics division at the BC Children's Hospital, the Child and Family Research Institute and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said in a news release.
"First, in alcohol-exposed newborns, physiological responses to the heel lance, such as heart rate and parts of the nervous system that controls heart rate, were blunted or dampened compared to infants with little or no alcohol exposure," Oberlander said.
"Second, we observed that, in response to this painful event, the stress hormone cortisol decreased in exposed infants while [remaining] almost unchanged in our control group. Finally, we looked at behavioral responses. Using very specific measures of facial expressions ... we found no differences between the two groups. However, using a measure of behavioral responsiveness ... we found that the exposed infants were less aroused."
It's believed the blunted response seen in alcohol-exposed infants may result from the effects of alcohol on a child's developing pain regulatory system.
"What these findings mean for long-term development and behavior [of children] is unknown at this point," Oberlander said. "However, we do know that altered stress regulation early in life can set up risk and vulnerability for poor mental and physical health and social and academic failure across the life span. In this sense, we think our findings may reflect a first glimpse at how prenatal alcohol exposure might 'calibrate' or 'program' emerging stress systems in early life."
The study was published online in advance of print publication in April in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.
-- Robert Preidt
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