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Sleep Changes Due To Fetal Alcohol Exposure May Lead To Brain Development Problems

Update Date: Feb 29, 2016 11:58 AM EST

Sleep changes caused by "fetal alcohol exposure" might be linked with learning and mood problems, says a new study published in the journal Neuroscience.

Exposing a developing brain to high levels of alcohol can lead to a "permanent fragmentation in slow-wave sleep" that would affect the severity of related cognitive disorders, say the study authors.

"We have known for a long time that sleep fragmentation is associated with the impaired cognitive function, attention, and emotional regulation," Donald Wilson, Ph.D., a professor in NYU Langone's Departments of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Neuroscience and Physiology, and a member of the NKI said in a news release. "Our study shows for the first time that binge alcohol exposure early in life results in long-lasting slow-wave sleep fragmentation, which, in turn, is associated with learning problems."

Experts used a mouse model of the fetal alcohol syndrome in order to estimate the third-trimester of pregnancy. They also checked the slow-wave sleep in adult mice after injecting them with a huge amount of ethanol in just a week after birth. The mice in the control group got saline injections.

For mice brains, a week after birth is equal to the third trimester for brain development of a human fetus.

Those mice that were exposed to ethanol during the study invested less sleep in slow-wave sleep and instead underwent more severe sleep fragmentation. They were linked to memory impairment while the mice were also hyperactive.

However, mice in the control groups were not given ethanol.

"Targeting therapeutic interventions toward sleep may help to relieve aspects of the diverse disorders linked to fetal alcohol exposure, and may open new avenues for treatment of this far too common condition," said Wilson.

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