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Drinking early in pregnancy may harm placenta

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TUESDAY, Feb. 18, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Drinking moderate to large amounts of alcohol early in your pregnancy may damage your placenta, the organ that sustains your developing baby until it is born, researchers say.

In laboratory tests, investigators found that amounts of alcohol equal to moderate or heavy drinking reduced cell growth in the placenta. Low levels of alcohol had no effect, they added.

For the study, moderate drinking was roughly defined as two to three drinks a day, while four to six drinks a day was considered heavy drinking.

The scientists also found that moderate to heavy drinking reduced how much of an important amino acid called taurine is delivered from the mother to the baby through the placenta, according to the study published online Feb. 14 in the journal PLoS One.

Taurine is crucial for a baby's brain and body development, so this finding may explain some of the behavioral and physical problems seen in children born to alcoholic mothers, the British researchers suggested.

"Placental growth is reduced in comparison to non-exposed placentas, suggesting that in the long-term, there could be consequences to how much support the infant receives from the placenta during the rest of the pregnancy after this exposure," study author Sylvia Lui, from Tommy's Maternal and Fetal Health Research Centre at The University of Manchester, said in a university news release.

And, John Aplin, a professor of reproductive biomedicine at the center, added, "This research also suggests that women who are trying to conceive should not drink, as the damage caused by alcohol can happen very early on in pregnancy -- perhaps before a woman knows she is pregnant."

Another expert agreed.

"It can often be a few weeks before a woman discovers she's pregnant, and this research shows that moderate drinking during those vital first weeks can have a big impact on the development of the baby," Jane Brewin, chief executive of Tommy's, a group that funds research into pregnancy problems and provides information to parents, said in the news release.

"Many pregnancies are unplanned, but for those actively planning a family this research raises questions about whether women should consider their alcohol intake even before they [become] pregnant," Brewin added.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about alcohol and pregnancy.

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