By John Salak –
It has been pretty obvious for some time that pregnant women shouldn’t drink alcohol. The Centers For Disease Control And Prevention (CDC), in fact, the CDC states categorically that there is never a safe time for pregnant women or those trying to conceive to have alcohol.
The risks involved include “miscarriage, stillbirth, and a range of lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities,” the CDC reported. Women who drink during pregnancies ultimately risk saddling their unborn children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), which can lead to a range of problems from abnormal facial features to development problems, cognitive difficulties, learning hearing and vision issues and potential concerns with their children’s heart, kidney and bone functions.
The focus on FASD-related issues has naturally focused on women, but new research suggests that the role fathers play may be larger and more significant than first thought. Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences just recently released research that underscores the need to intensify the focus on the father’s role in fetal development, especially as it relates to drugs and alcohol.
Men obviously have an impact on a child’s development. It has also been long recognized that males pass on more than genes to their offspring. Science, however, has had a difficult time determining exactly what is transferred over to the unborn child. “When you look at the data from throughout human history, there’s clear evidence that there’s something beyond just genetics being inherited from the male,” explained Dr. Michael Golding, an associate professor at Texas A&M. “So, if that data is solid, we’ve got to start looking more at male behavior.”
Golding went on to theorize, “Say you had a parent who was exposed to starvation — they could pass on what you might call a ‘thriftiness,’ where their kids can derive more nutrition from less food. That could be a positive if they grow up in a similar environment, or they could grow up in a time when starvation isn’t an issue, and they might be more prone to obesity or metabolic syndromes. That kind of data is clearly present in clinical data from humans.”
The Texas A&M study work that effectively looked beyond genes into how things such as behavior and environment can affect development is called epigenetics. The larger question facing Golding and others is how male prenatal behavior leads to epigenetic factors.
Golding and his teams believe they have found at least one answer in showing how the epigenetic factor of prenatal exposure to alcohol in males can impact the placenta. They were able to identify that in mice the offspring of fathers exposed to alcohol have a number of placenta-related difficulties, including increased fetal growth restriction, enlarged placentas and decreased placental efficiency. Earlier research out of the University of California – Riverside came away with similar findings, although this research project noted that male mice exposed to alcohol showed an increased risk of passing on brain issues to their offspring.
Regardless of the nuanced differences between the studies, the warnings of potential consequences for the children of fathers who drink prior to conception rang the same out of both universities. “Fathers who consistently consume moderate to high amounts of alcohol leading up to conception may negatively impact offspring development due to the exposure to the paternal sperm,” warned Kelly Huffman, an associate professor at Cal-Riverside.
The Texas A&M team also noted that it found that while fathers exposed to alcohol seemed to have a potential to adversely impact placentas, the problems were more often tied to their male offspring. Golding’s team also suggested that the mother’s genetics, along with the offspring’s sex, played a sizeable role in the pass-on issues. “Yes, men can pass things on to their offspring beyond just genetics, but the mom’s genetics can interpret those epigenetic factors differently, and that ultimately changes the way that the placenta behaves,” Golding said.
He acknowledged that Texas A&M research doesn’t establish an absolute line between fathers drinking prior to conception and negative impacts on fetal development. But he stressed that it does suggest more research is warranted on these findings and the impact of male prenatal behavior in general.
“The thing that I want to ultimately change is this stigma surrounding the development of birth defects,” Golding said. “There’s information coming through in sperm that is going to impact the offspring but is not tied to the genetic code; it’s in your epigenetic code, and this is highly susceptible to environmental exposures, so the birth defects that we see might not be the mother’s fault; they might be the father’s or both, equally.”