A blood test may tell doctors whether a pregnant mother’s drinking has affected her fetus, according to a study from University of California San Diego researchers.

Those scientists worked with the Texas A&M College of Medicine and the Omni-Net Birth Defects Prevention Program in Ukraine to identify the test, which could measure how severely alcohol exposure has affected the unborn. The groups say the findings, published in the journal PLoS ONE, could “facilitate early intervention to improve the health of infants and children who were prenatally exposed to alcohol.”

Fetal alcohol syndrome involves birth defects like skull malformations, neurological issues, decreased motor function, learning disabilities, behavioral deficits and other problems. The National Institutes of Health estimate it affects up to two in every 1,000 births in the U.S., although the numbers are higher in other nations. In South Africa, for instance, the NIH puts the rate at 60 children for every 1,000. But those numbers may not even paint the total picture: “It is estimated that for every child born with FAS, three additional children are born who may not have the physical characteristics of FAS but who, as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure, still experience neurobehavioral deficits that affect learning and behavior.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children with different levels of fetal alcohol syndrome may have small head sizes, low body weight and short stature, attention and memory difficulties, a low IQ, vision or hearing problems, poor coordination and language delays. They may have exhibited “sleep and sucking problems as a baby” as well.

Drinking while pregnant can cause serious problems for the unborn. Image courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

Fetal alcohol syndrome largely popped up on the public’s radar a number of years ago when it was found that many orphaned children who American families adopted from former Soviet Union states had the condition, among other developmental issues. But research has shown that children who are up for adoption or in the foster system in general are more likely to be affected by fetal alcohol syndrome, not just those from the former USSR.

Reuters has explained that their “rates of alcohol-related problems — which can include deformities, mental retardation and learning disabilities — were anywhere from nine to 60 times higher than in the general population.” That can partly be linked back to the circumstances under which many children enter the system in the first place: their parents’ substance abuse.

While the NIH warns that there is no safe alcohol consumption level for pregnant women, research shows the greatest risk occurs when the women have four or more drinks at once, or more than seven in a week. Unfortunately, the federal institution says, “Data from prenatal clinics and postnatal studies suggest that 20 to 30 percent of women drink at some time during pregnancy.” Part of that may be because half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are not planned. While most women reduce or stop drinking once they know they are pregnant, the NIH say, more than 12 percent of the women who are without contraception and are at risk of getting pregnant drink more than the estimated threshold for fetal alcohol syndrome.

"It's a huge problem," study coauthor Rajesh Miranda, a professor in the Texas A&M College of Medicine, said in a statement from UC San Diego.

The researchers studied 68 pregnant Ukrainian women, matching their health records and histories of alcohol consumption with birth outcomes, as well as blood samples during their second and third trimesters. “The results indicated that moderate to high levels of alcohol exposure during early pregnancy resulted in significant differences in some circulating small RNA molecules ... in maternal blood,” the university said. Those differences were greater in the subjects whose babies showed alcohol-related physical or neurobehavioral signs in their first year.

The blood test may prove crucial because early diagnosis and intervention is key: “Good nutrition, better perinatal health care, lowering stress levels and infant care interventions can all improve the outcome of alcohol-affected pregnancies,” Ukrainian research team leader Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki said in the statement.

His group is now looking to replicate the results in a larger sample and find out whether their findings also predict the children’s development in the longer term.

Miranda said, “If we can reset developmental trajectories earlier in life, it is a lot easier than trying to treat disabilities later in life.”