A new study is the first to detect an association between children whose mothers drank before and during pregnancy with certain facial changes. Altered face shape was seen even in cases where the amount of alcohol consumed amounted to less than a small glass of wine or bottle of beer.
The research points to a child’s face shape being a possible indicator of developmental health, something that was already known in the case of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder where heavy drinking during pregnancy leaves behind signs after birth.
“I would call the face a ‘health mirror’ as it reflects the overall health of a child,” said study lead Gennady Roshchupkin, assistant professor and leader of the computational population biology group at Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in a statement.
“A child’s exposure to alcohol before birth can have significant adverse effects on its health development and, if a mother regularly drinks a large amount, this can result in foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, FASD, which is reflected in children’s faces.”
To investigate further, researchers on a new paper used artificial intelligence (AI) and deep learning technology to search for patterns between childrens’ face shapes and the alcohol their mothers drank, both during pregnancy and a few months before conception. They used 3D scans of thousands of participants aged nine and 13 from the longitudinal Generation R Study in the Netherlands.
“We found a statistically significant association between prenatal alcohol exposure and face shape in the nine-year-old children,” said first author Xianjing Liu, a PhD student in Professor Roshchupkin’s group who developed the AI algorithm. “The more alcohol the mothers drank, the more statistically significant changes there were. The most common traits were turned-up nose tip, shortened nose, turned-out chin and turned-in lower eyelid.”
“Among the group of mothers who drank throughout pregnancy, we found that even if mothers drank very little during pregnancy, less than 12 g a week, the association between alcohol exposure and children’s facial shape could be observed. This is the first time an association has been shown at such low levels of alcohol consumption.”
The connection between face shape and a mother’s alcohol consumption dropped off among the older group of children, but the researchers say that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t affected by other health problems. In cases of FASD, alcohol exposure can lead to neurological impairments, abnormal facial development, and memory problems.
As such, the researchers suggest that this raises questions about the possibility of health conditions being associated with children whose mothers drank small amounts before conception, even when this was stopped during pregnancy. It also may be helpful in guiding advice for prospective parents with regard to drinking before pregnancy.
“The results of this study suggest that low–moderate maternal alcohol consumption up to three months before and during pregnancy is associated with the facial appearance of children,” concluded the authors. “Furthermore, our study suggests that women who are pregnant or want to become pregnant soon should quit alcohol consumption several months before conception and completely during pregnancy to avoid adverse health outcomes in the offspring.”
The study was published in the journal Human Reproduction.