Page last updated: Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Antioxidants During Pregnancy May Help Prevent Birth Defects Tied to Alcohol
Pregnant women who abuse alcohol may reduce the risk of birth defects in their babies by taking antioxidants during pregnancy, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study has found.

Dr. Kathleen K. Sulik, professor of cell and developmental biology at UNC’s School of Medicine and Dr. Shao-yu Chen, a member of the Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies, assistant professor of cell and developmental biology, found a 36 percent reduction in limb malformations in the offspring of pregnant mice exposed to ethanol and at the same time given a newly developed antioxidant compound called EUK-134.

“What makes this study unique is that it shows for the first time that giving antioxidants to a pregnant mother at the same time she’s exposed to alcohol can diminish the incidence of major malformations,” said Dr. Sulik.

Antioxidants protect key cellular components by neutralizing the damaging effects of free radicals, natural by products of cell metabolism. Free radicals form when oxygen is metabolized, or burned off, by the body. They travel through cells, disrupting the structure of other molecules, causing cellular damage. Such cell damage is believed to contribute to aging and various health problems. Examples of antioxidants are selenium, vitamin C and E, zinc and superoxide dismutase (or SOD), a zinc- and copper- or manganese-containing enzyme that reacts with superoxide radicals to convert them to less dangerous chemical entities.

Sulik said a major focus of her research has been cellular mechanisms involved in birth defect formation, particularly those linked to ethanol exposure, such as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, or FASD. Until now, much of this research at UNC and elsewhere has involved growing cells in the laboratory.

Chen and Sulik have extended their cell culture research to a whole embryo culture system. In this technique, early mouse embryos are grown in the laboratory and exposed to various levels of ethanol and antioxidants. Embryos are then monitored for evidence of cell death and abnormal development. “Using this method, we also showed that SOD can diminish ethanol-induced cell death and subsequent malformations,” Chen said.

 As to the new study, Sulik said, the implications apply directly to people with alcoholism: “the practical point of this paper is that perhaps we can diminish some of the problems that might exist if the nutritional status of alcoholic mothers improves. It would be great if these women would supplement their diets with a daily multivitamin.....The idea of possibly adding antioxidants to alcoholic beverages has been proposed as a way of helping the situation”.

The amount of alcohol used in the study is high, Sulik added, equivalent to the amount that would raise the blood alcohol level of a person up to 0.4 or 0.5. This is a level that can be achieved by chronic alcoholics, people who have acquired a tolerance for alcohol. Virtually all children born with full-blown fetal alcohol syndrome, with major malformations caused by alcohol, are born to chronic alcoholics.

Source: The study appears on-line in FASEB-J, the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

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