Fathers drinking alcohol prior to conception could be linked to brain and facial defects in their offspring, new research suggests, putting the onus not just on mothers to quell their alcohol consumption but on fathers too. The findings suggest that research needs to examine fathers’ roles in fetal alcohol syndrome as opposed to just mothers', which has been the focus of most studies to this point.
Surprisingly, the team actually found that when it comes to certain craniofacial differences, paternal exposure to alcohol has a stronger effect than maternal exposure.
“We found that male exposures actually drive certain craniofacial differences much stronger than maternal exposures do, so this programming effect that’s coming through sperm has a profound effect on the organization of the face and the growth and proportion of different facial features,” said Dr. Michael Golding, an associate professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences’ Department of Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology and lead author of the study, in a statement.
“When it was the dad drinking, we saw a profound shift in the organization of the face.”
Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a condition characterized by lower body weight, central nervous system problems, hyperactivity, and physical development difficulties. It is difficult to diagnose but is typically identified after doctors confirm the fetus was exposed to alcohol through the mother drinking while pregnant. However, this can pose a number of challenges, and mothers will often deny alcohol consumption in healthcare consultations – now, this research suggests some could be telling the truth.
“When doctors suspect a child has FAS, they sit down with the mother to confirm the diagnosis by discussing her drinking habits during pregnancy,” Golding said. “It’s not uncommon for the mother to deny consuming alcohol while pregnant. When they do, there’s this stigma or this notion that women are lying about their alcohol use.”
So, if not the mother, then who? Golding and colleagues believe the father could be contributing more than previously thought.
The team used mouse models to compare the results of when the mother, father, and both parents consume alcohol before conception. They discovered craniofacial defects in the offspring when each parent drank alcohol that was similar to those found in human children, but they found the defects were greater when it was the father drinking.
This challenges existing ideas over how FAS develops, and could mean that prospective parents should look to stem their alcohol use prior to conception and that both parents should be incredibly careful of their consumption to have the least possible risk. Being an animal model, it is possible that these results do not translate to humans, but it offers a plausible explanation for many people who are stumped as to the origin of FAS in their children.
Together with recent research outlining the impact of pre-conception alcohol use, Golding now hopes the new research can impact current alcohol policy.
“Change the alcohol warning label to remove the maternal emphasis and put it on both parents to say, ‘The decision to consume this beverage can have significant, life-changing consequences to a future child,’” Golding explains.
“Right now, the warning label only conveys part of the story. We must get that message out into the world as quickly as possible.”
The research was outlined in a letter to the Journal of Clinical Investigation.