In this month’s alert
Editorial – May 2019
Welcome to the May 2019 edition of Alcohol Alert, the Institute of Alcohol Studies newsletter, covering the latest updates on UK alcohol policy matters.
This month, Brits top ‘drunkenness poll’, according to the findings of the latest Global Drugs Survey. Other articles include: The World Health Organisation will miss its alcohol reduction target, on researchers’ predictions, study shows that one in five people in the UK are harmed by others’ drinking, and another survey finds that one in three medics use alcohol to self-medicate.
Please click on the article titles to read them. We hope you enjoy this edition.
COVER STORY – Great Britain tops ‘drunkenness poll’
Global Drugs Survey finds UK drinkers intoxicated weekly
15 May 2019 – Drinkers in the UK get drunk more often than anywhere else in the world, according to this year’s Global Drugs Survey.
The report found that among more than 120,000 people in 36 countries, Britons reported getting drunk an average of 51 times in the last year, more than any other nation.
English speaking countries led the way for how often their citizens get drunk, with the USA (50), Canada (48) and Australia (47) closely following the UK at the top of the global rankings. They also led the way in terms of the number of those seeking emergency treatment following alcohol use in the last 12 months. With 3.7% of respondents, the UK came second only to Australia.
The survey also found that alcohol played a significant role in sexual assaults. It was involved in almost nine out of every ten (87.8%) encounters.
29.3% of women said they had been taken advantage of while intoxicated, with 8% saying the incident had happened in the last 12 months. The rates for men were 6% and 2% respectively. Almost all respondents who said it had happened within the previous year did not report the incident to police, with 43% failing to because they felt partly responsible.
Sex and drugs researcher Alexandra Aldridge, who was involved in the study, said people can feel reluctant to use the words sexual assault because they may believe their experience is less valid if they are intoxicated.
The Royal Holloway PhD student said: ‘Our findings really show that we need to move away from victim blaming – telling women to change their behaviour clearly can only go so far in preventing sexual assaults.’
She added: ‘Clearly people are feeling responsible in some way for their actions, and I think a lot of people who experience harassment or being taken advantage of can really relate to that.
‘“To what extent does my experience count as sexual assault when I have these feelings of guilt and responsibility?” – that definitely acts as a huge barrier to reporting.’
Aldridge also said the findings show the need to reframe the idea of consent as a process rather than a one-off.
The report concluded that the debunking of such rape myths has important implications for educational messages aimed at preventing intoxicated sexual violence, and that such messages should not rely solely on strategies to avoid being raped.
‘Instead, messages should promote ethical sexual behaviour in which individuals are encouraged to consider the effects of alcohol and/or other drug intoxication on their own and others’ feelings around sexual activity,’ researchers wrote.
You can listen to Alexandra Aldridge explain more about the findings in our Alcohol Alert podcast.
WHO to miss 2025 alcohol intake target
Declines in European countries such as UK offset by rises in China, India
07 May 2019 – The World Health Organisation (WHO) aim to cut the harmful use of alcohol by 10% by 2025 is unlikely to met, predict researchers wiring in The Lancet.
On the contrary, the paper Global alcohol exposure between 1990 and 2017 and forecasts until 2030: a modelling study not only found a 70% increase in total annual alcohol consumption, but also forecast further increases in drinking levels to 2030, which will have deleterious effects on people’s health across the globe.
A team of researchers – based in Canada (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and Germany (Technische Universität Dresden) – used data sources including the WHO and the Global Burden of Disease study to analyse trends in alcohol intake in 189 countries from 1990–2017, estimating the rates through to 2030.
They also tried to find out how many people had never drunk alcohol and how many qualified as binge drinkers, defined by an intake of 60 grams of pure alcohol or more at a single sitting, using survey data from 149 countries for nondrinkers, and from 118 countries for binge drinkers.
The results showed that the total annual volume of alcohol consumed globally increased by 70% between 1990 and 2017, from 20,999 million litres to 35,676 million litres.
Moreover, although central and eastern European countries topped the consumption charts, with the average Moldovan consuming more than 15 litres, the most significant increases over the period were driven by middle-income countries located in Asia.
Asian nations saw the greatest increases
‘Before 1990, most alcohol was consumed in high-income countries, with the highest use levels recorded in Europe,’ said lead author Jakob Manthey, a researcher at the Institute of Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy in Dresden, Germany.
‘However, this pattern has changed substantially, with large reductions across eastern Europe and vast increases in several middle-income countries such as China, India, and Vietnam.’
As a result, he estimates that by 2030, Asia will usurp Europe as the continent with ‘the highest level of alcohol use’.
In Europe, average annual consumption per person fell by 12% between 2010 and 2017, from 11.2 to 9.8 litres. The UK was representative of this trend, experiencing a decrease from 12.3 to 11.4 litres.
This was offset by a 34% increase in southeast Asian countries from 3.5 to 4.7 litres over the same period. Vietnam saw the most marked increase, from just under a litre of pure alcohol to 8.9 litres [illustrated].
The researchers also observed that in most of the countries that they studied, the volume of alcohol consumed seemed to increase at a faster rate than the number of drinkers, suggesting that the average volume of alcohol intake per individual is set to rise, to the extent that just over a fifth (23%) of adults across the world will engage in binge drinking at least once every month by 2030.
‘Based on our data, the WHO’s aim of reducing the harmful use of alcohol by 10% by 2025 will not be reached globally,” warned Manthey, mindful of the health implications of the findings.
He added: ’Instead, alcohol use will remain one of the leading risk factors for the burden of disease for the foreseeable future, and its impact will probably increase, relative to other risk factors.’
Manthey called for the implementation of policy measures including increased taxation, restricted availability, and a ban on alcohol marketing and advertising at a global level.
‘Implementation of effective alcohol policies is warranted, especially in rapidly developing countries with growing rates of alcohol use,’ he said.
Commenting on the study, alcohol policy expert Dr Sarah Callinan, of La Trobe University in Australia, also raised fears that the potential efficacy of such policies in lower- and middle-income countries, where more than half of alcohol consumption is unrecorded, is ‘likely to be limited’.
‘Strict restrictions on advertising and other promotional activities are crucial to slow the growing demand for alcohol in these countries,’ she said.
‘Similarly, rigorous drink-driving countermeasures are necessary so that increasing consumption does not lead to increases in road traffic injury.
‘Supporting evidence-based policies outside high-income countries, despite anticipated strong industry resistance, will be a key task for public health advocates in the coming decades.’
NI alcohol deaths are ‘thin end of the wedge’
Coroner makes observations at joint inquest
07 May 2019 – Alcohol misuse is the ‘greatest healthcare problem facing Northern Ireland’, says Belfast Coroner Joe McCrisken.
His comments come after a joint inquest into the deaths of four people who died of alcohol abuse. Three of the deceased died on the same day last March, and one was just 36 years old, and started to consume large amounts of alcohol while dealing with mental health issues.
Just over two-thirds of the alcohol-related deaths
Dr James Lynas, a state pathologist who gave evidence at the inquest, observed that dying of liver disease is not particularly rare with a number of people dying from chronic alcoholism already in their 20s. He also remarked that alcoholism seems to affect all levels of society in an equal way.
‘This is a disease that straddles all parts of society from the wealthiest and most privileged to the most disadvantaged areas as well,’ he said.
According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA), 303 deaths were alcohol-related in 2017 (illustrated), up 30% compared with a decade ago. However, the coroner said that the official figures do not present the whole picture.
‘We have a problem with alcohol use and abuse here, we know that,’ McCrisken said.
‘The thin end of the wedge is the 303 reported deaths in 2017 as we know that vastly underplays the role alcohol consumption plays in deaths here and also in terms of the sheer weight of resources that have been deployed to address these issues, at A&E, in GP surgeries, and in homes.’
The coroner also said he was following developments in Scotland – where minimum unit pricing (MUP) was introduced in May 2018 – to see if it’d have an effect on the number of alcohol-related deaths there. The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly in January 2017 has so far impeded attempts to have the same legislation being brought forward in Northern Ireland.
The British Medical Association (BMA) has stated that since Stormont Assembly disbanded, minimum unit pricing is one of several health and social care measures that have been left behind, with no minister available to sign off important policy making decisions, while it has advanced in other parts of the United Kingdom.
‘I hope we get a devolved government soon in Northern Ireland because there are so many issues that could be focused on by various ministers and I hope that happens soon,’ the coroner said.
One in five people in England harmed by others’ drinking – BMJ
And nearly one in 20 of them experienced aggression, indicates largest survey of its kind
10 May 2019 – One in five people in England have been harmed in some way by others’ drinking over the past year, suggest the results of the largest survey of its kind in the UK, published in the online journal BMJ Open.
Nearly one in 20 of them experienced aggression – physically threatened or hurt, or forced/pressurised into something sexual, the findings indicate.
The survey of 5,000 adults across England looked at the extent, type, and frequency of the harms associated with other people’s drinking, who is most likely to be affected, as well as who and what might be driving it.
The researchers drew on an extended Alcohol Toolkit Survey (ATS), carried out between November 2015 and January 2016. The ATS is a nationally representative household survey, which includes a new sample of adults every month.
The extended survey included 18 additional questions on a wide range of potential harms associated with other people’s drinking. These ranged from actual or threatened physical violence, through emotional hurt or neglect or having to care for someone whose drinking had resulted in illness/disability, to being kept awake at night because of associated noise and disruption.
Those who said they had been in any of these situations in the past 12 months were asked to say who had been responsible, and how often it had happened. They were also asked how much they drank themselves, using a validated measure (AUDIT) which identifies levels of hazardous/harmful drinking.
Of the 4,874 adults who responded, one in five (roughly 20%; n=980) said they had experienced at least one of the 18 harms as a result of someone else’s drinking over the past year.
The factors associated with experiencing harm were being of a young age (16–24), being of a white British ethnicity, having qualifications, living in private rented accommodation, having a disability, and being a hazardous drinker.
The most commonly reported harm was being kept awake at night (8%) or feeling anxious/uncomfortable at a social occasion (nearly 7%). But around one in 20 (4.6%; 225) said they had experienced violence/aggression – physically threatened or hurt, or forced/pressurised into sex.
When split by sex, men (5.3%) were slightly more likely than women (4%) to experience violence/aggression, while women were around twice as likely as men to say they had experienced emotional harm/neglect (just under 5% vs just over 2%).
While most harms were experienced less than monthly (75%), around 5% were experienced daily or near daily.
Commenting on the findings, Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance UK, said: ‘This important study makes clear the very real impact a person’s alcohol consumption can have on the people around them.
‘While there is an awareness of the harms alcohol can cause an individual, the second hand harms associated with alcohol are also prevalent in society and, in some cases, happening frequently.
‘The survey highlights the scale and severity of the problem, including actual or threatened physical violence. Worryingly, nearly four in ten incidents of violent crime involve alcohol.
‘In many ways, people are experiencing harm linked to someone else’s drinking and we can’t accept this as the “norm”. The Government needs to take action and introduce a range of targeted, evidence-based measures, including minimum unit pricing, which would raise the price of the cheapest, strongest alcohol products and would go some of the way to reducing the alcohol-related harms people are suffering.’
As an observational and exploratory study, the results found do not establish any causal links. But as the largest survey of its kind in the UK, the research team observed that: ‘It is clear that [alcohol-related harm to others] is relatively prevalent and that some individuals experience harm frequently. The most prevalent harms could be considered insignificant, but even apparently minor harms such as sleep disruption can have an impact on health and quality of life, particularly if experienced persistently.’
They concluded: ‘Policies that focus on alcohol must take into consideration the impact of drinking on those other than the drinker.’
WHO publishes new country-specific alcohol fact sheets
NGO European branch release to guide national policy-makers
13 May 2019 – The World Health Organisation (WHO) has produced 30 country-specific fact sheets for EU Member States, Norway and Switzerland that include data on alcohol consumption, alcohol harm and alcohol-related policy implementation, with the aim to provide guidance to national policy-makers for further consideration in the field of alcohol and public health.
In addition to trends in alcohol consumption, each country-specific fact sheet includes information on alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm, with unique attention to young people, and a section on the enactment of important alcohol control policies, including the three that WHO considers ‘best buys’, which are price increases, limits on availability and alcohol advertising bans.
This allows for a brief summary of key subsets of alcohol policy measures that will help countries to evaluate their own progress towards decreasing the rates of noncommunicable diseases and their significant risk factors.
For the first time, the fact sheets also include an individual summary of the combined indicator scores of the ten targeted areas for action to reduce the dangerous use of alcohol.
‘Deaths of despair’ on the rise in UK – Deaton Review
Middle-age mortality (aged 45–54) in England, 1993–2017
Think-tank report finds alcohol one of the driving factors
14 May 2019 – The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has announced the launch of a five-year study to understand inequalities ‘that exist not just in income and living standards, but in wealth, health, family environments, life chances and political influence’.
In particular, a 34-page introductory report to the review observed a rise in deaths from suicide, alcohol or drug overdose and alcohol-related liver disease, also dubbed as ‘deaths of despair’. Research suggests that these types of deaths have been steadily on the rise in the United States (US) and are thought to be associated with the increasing disadvantages experienced by the poorest (the IFS Deaton Review). Worsening job prospects, increasing social isolation and family breakdown may all be to blame for the increase in problems relating to mental health and physical health.
Now the IFS report suggests that a similar trend is beginning to emerge in the UK. It is thought that a decade on from the financial crisis, these inequalities have become more visible due to the overall squeeze on living standards. For example, alcohol-related liver disease among 45–54-year-olds in England continued to increase between 1993 and 2017. When taking into account the slowdown in the decrease in deaths from cancer and heart disease, they have contributed to an increase in middle-age mortality after decades of uninterrupted improvement.
According to Nobel prize-winning economist Angus Deaton, the UK needs to ‘change the rules’ to evade negative extremes of inequality seen in the US.
MUP anniversary – AHA holds parliamentary event
L-R: Sir Ian Gilmore, Fiona Bruce MP, Adrian Chiles
Adrian Chiles among attendees marking year since Act came into force in Scotland
14 May 2019 – The Alcohol Health Alliance UK (AHA) held a parliamentary reception, to mark a year since the introduction of Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) in Scotland. Hosted by Derek Thomas MP, the occasion saw speeches from Shadow Health and Social Care Secretary Jonathan Ashworth and celebrity Adrian Chiles.
AHA Chair Professor Sir Ian Gilmore opened the event with the simple message that alcohol is a leading cause of working life years lost and that we know what is needed to fix it: action on price, marketing, and availability.
He also argued for MUP, drawing a compelling parallel to how the price of cigarettes impacts consumption, an area where the UK leads its European neighbours. MUP has now been implemented in Scotland for a year, and will be introduced in Wales and the Republic of Ireland soon, and yet England still lags behind.
Adrian Chiles attacked the myth that 14 units (the chief medical officers’ recommended weekly low-risk drinking guidelines) were too low, stating that more than 70% of people drink stay within that amount. He went to accuse the alcohol industry of spreading misinformation about what normal drinking is, in order to shift social norms. He also argued that industry self-regulation has failed, citing the example of a lack of health information on alcohol labels (see the AHA report on labelling here).
Closing the speeches, Jonathan Ashworth MP recounted his personal battle with his father’s alcohol consumption, in particular how it led to him missing Jonathan’s wedding, and also to his early death. Jonathan stressed the importance of making tackling alcohol harm a priority, and of discussing harmful drinking, explaining how his story had helped a complete stranger talk to his family about his own drinking.
Overall, there is good evidence and a growing appetite to change alcohol policy, but more needs to be done to promote the introduction of MUP amongst lawmakers.
Ireland: Concerns raised over teenage drinking as Easter sales rise
NGO wants faster implementation of the Public Health (Alcohol) Act
16 May 2019 – Nielsen data reported that in the week leading up to Easter, alcohol spending in Ireland increased by 5.3% compared with the same time period last year.
The rise in alcohol spending was up on the previous year’s 3.9% increase, as well as the second consecutive year that the alcohol industry profited from amendments to the 2018 Intoxicating Liquor Act, which saw the Good Friday ban lifted after more than 90 years. The Act previously banned the sale of alcohol in pubs, supermarkets and corner shops on Good Friday. Unsurprisingly, in its absence, growth in alcohol spending has risen, with sales of cider (+33.4%), lager (+19.5%), ale (+16%), spirit mixers (+64.8%) and sparkling wine/champagne (+13.9%) seeing the biggest increases in 2019.
The figures come as alcohol control NGO Alcohol Action Ireland said it was ‘highly concerned’ by the amount of alcohol drunk by Irish teenagers, as found in a lifestyle survey conducted by the Western Regional Drug and Alcohol Taskforce. Almost half of 15–16-year-olds in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon reported being drunk more than once in their lifetime, with more than a quarter being intoxicated in the last month. Other main findings suggested that more than three quarters have drunk alcohol, as well as a third having tried alcohol by the age of 13.
Alcohol Action Ireland Chief Executive Sheila Gilheany told the Irish Examiner that the latest survey highlights the need for the full implementation of all of the provisions in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act.
Gilheany noted that it had been more than six months since the Act was passed but key parts such as minimum unit pricing, advertising content restrictions and labelling of alcohol products have not been enforced.
‘We are calling on Health Minister Simon Harris to immediately commence all of its measures,’ she said. ‘What possible reason could there be for any further delay?’
One in three medics use alcohol to self-medicate
Drinking to alleviate work stress commonplace among profession
16 May 2019 – Occupational distress and job factors increase the odds of doctors using substances, according to researchers from Birkbeck College and University College London, with alcohol frequently cited as one of those most used.
Published in the British Medical Journal, their study aimed to assess the prevalence of health problems (including insomnia, binge eating, substance use and ill health) among UK doctors and to investigate whether occupational distress increases the risk of health problems.
The data – collected via a survey of 417 UK doctors – paints a worrying picture of the country’s 251,000 practising medics:
- Just over half (53%) of doctors drank alcohol at least twice a week
- Almost half (44%) binge drank
- One in three (34%) used alcohol to improve their mood
- One in five (22%) admitted drinking to deal with a stressful event
- 5% met the criteria for alcohol dependence.
Logistic regression results analysing the effects of occupational distress and job factors on alcohol and drug use found that the predictors significantly explained variance in doctors using substances to help them get through something (6%), drinking alcohol frequently (38%) and large amounts (12%), binge drinking (28%) and being alcohol dependent (28%).
The results also showed that having more experience working in medicine raised the risk of a doctor drinking alcohol frequently, but lowered the risk of binge drinking, whereas doctors who worked in a hospital were more likely to drink high amounts of alcohol on a typical day of drinking and to binge drink.
Online alcohol marketing could fall foul of watchdogs
Advertisers fret over influencers plugging alcohol
16 May 2019 – The UK’s advertising watchdogs are ‘ready and prepared’ to clamp down on alcohol brands that sell their drinks to young consumers by suggesting they will be happier, more confident, or successful, a panel of marketing experts has warned, according to Drinks Business.
Amy Powell, client relationships manager at marketing compliance consultancy PromoVeritas, told a room of brand owners, bartenders, marketers and journalists that the rise of influencers on social media risks inadvertently targeting children.
Speaking at ‘Mental Health & Alcohol: Could alcohol marketing be more mindful?’, an event focusing on the relationship between alcohol and wellbeing in London, and coinciding with Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK, Powell said: ‘The thing that alarms me, is [influencers such as musician Rita Ora] has an audience of 14+, and her image has a bottle of Tequila right there on her Instagram.’
She added that any alcohol adverts that seek to glamourize its therapeutic qualities will ‘pretty much always break the rules.’
‘Like I said to brands four years ago, GDPR is coming, and regulators are ready and prepared to go to court in cases like this.’
Her comments were backed by campaigners pushing for greater scrutiny to be applied to alcohol advertising.
Millie Gooch, founder of the Sober Girl Society, told the Daily Mail: ‘We need to be really mindful of any kind of alcoholic advertising that is occurring on Instagram.
‘Regularly, on my feed I’ll see alcohol ads and sponsorship deals for vodka drinks and cocktails when I’ve not even searched for them.’
‘There’s so much alcohol-fuelled marketing aimed at young women and teenagers.
‘It’s disheartening to see influencers with such young followings promote alcohol in this way.
‘Girls as young as eight are now on Instagram and they’ll probably be following celebrities like Rita Ora.’
Dr Richard Piper, chief executive of Alcohol Change UK, said: ‘Much of the alcohol industry’s marketing budget is devoted to endorsements like these, which can often go unregulated.
’This is because alcohol marketing in the fast-evolving world of social media presents new challenges which the current system isn’t able to cope with.
‘That’s why we need a full review of alcohol marketing regulation to make it fit for the digital age.’
A study from the University of Stirling and Cancer Research UK published in the BMJ Open earlier this year found that among young people (aged 11–19 years) who drink alcohol, marketing awareness was associated with increased consumption and greater likelihood of higher-risk consumption, and that even among never drinkers, ownership of branded merchandise was associated with susceptibility.
Rule 19.17 of the Advertising Standards Authority BCAP Code states that alcohol advertisements must not feature in a significant role anyone who is, or seems to be, under 25 and must not feature children (except incidental roles in situations involving families socialising responsibly).
Hangovers a bigger headache for drinkers than guidelines?
Study finds drinkers use intuition to judge alcohol limits
23 May 2019 – New research published in Psychology & Health suggests national guidance on safe levels of alcohol consumption is disconnected from the real life experiences and conceptions of those who drink regularly.
Researchers from Oxford Brookes University and the University of Liverpool found that fewer than 2% of the 150 respondents to an online survey of drinking attitudes and behaviours ‘referred to guidelines as informing their sense of too much alcohol’, but twice as many (4%) referred to ‘long-term health’ as contributing to their intuitive level of too much, and the vast majority of participants stated that thresholds were established through ‘recognising previous negative states’ with a focus on short term risks of drinking too much alcohol.
The study’s authors suggest that their findings demonstrate ‘a disconnect between medical conceptions of risk and the experiences that people call on to gauge when to stop drinking.’
Dr Emma Davies, senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes said: ‘From the findings of this study, we can see that society’s challenge is to find a way of incorporating the increasingly robust medical findings around the dangers of alcohol consumption into the actual lived experiences of people who drink.
‘We know that many people are intimately aware of the short-term impacts that excessive drinking can have, which include feeling physically incapable, psychologically distressed, a loss of control of their actions or leading to negative interactions in social situations. However, this research also demonstrates that drinkers create their own threshold for what is an appropriate level of drinking, which is not based on expert guidance of safe alcohol unit levels.’
Dr Mark Burgess, Reader in the Department of Psychology, Health and Professional Development at Oxford Brookes University, added: “This research highlights that fresh approaches to public health interventions around the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption are required.
‘People who have negative experiences when approaching their own ‘too muchʼ alcohol threshold may be more amenable to interventions as their bodies are already signalling for them to stop. However, those who have a more positive experience when reaching their own thresholds are likely to be less willing to change their behaviour, despite it being potentially more important for their health to do so. More targeted interventions are therefore recommended in future to influence people towards less harmful consumption.’
The study, entitled My own personal hell: Approaching and exceeding thresholds of too much alcohol, is the first of its kind to focus on the experiential threshold of what we, as individuals, consider to be too much alcohol consumption.
For a greater understanding of this important area, the study recommends that further research could explore how those with positive and negative perceptions of reaching their personal drinking thresholds might influence each other within social settings.
No amount of alcohol safe during pregnancy, say Scottish scientists
Abridged from The Scotsman
30 May 2019 – Researchers have concluded that no amount of alcohol is safe to drink during pregnancy at any time.
The team, including experts from the University of Aberdeen, have taken a major step forward in understanding how expectant mothers’ consumption of alcohol affects foetal brain development.
The international group investigated the biological changes in the brain that drive foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) using complex network theory to analyse brain signals. Their findings are published in the journal Chaos.
Researchers, including Professor Celso Grebogi from the University’s Institute for Complex Systems and Mathematical Biology (ICSMB) and Professor Lin Gao, a long-term visiting researcher at ICSMB, found that teenagers who were exposed to alcohol while in the womb showed altered brain connections that were consistent with impaired cognitive performance.
Their findings were reached by measuring the responses from a brain imaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) and then analysing them with tools developed using chaos theory.
The team developed a sophisticated computer technique called Cortical Spatio-Temporal multi-dipole analysis that could identify which areas of the brain were active when research participants were in the MEG machine.
Data was collected from FASD patients and 21 healthy volunteers without FASDs, and revealed several areas of the brain that showed impaired connectivity among the FASD group.
Specifically, subjects who were exposed to alcohol in the womb were more likely to have issues with connections through their corpus callosum, the band of brain tissue that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Deficits in this area have been reported in people with schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression and abnormalities in sensation.
FASDs are one of the leading causes of intellectual disability worldwide and are linked to a wide array of neurological issues including ADHD. While the prevailing theory links expectant mothers’ alcohol consumption to cognitive impairments for children, questions about the extent of this effect remain. Despite the known link, researchers are uncertain about the precise mechanism by which alcohol alters the developing brain. So this research team’s efforts mark one of the first times researchers have been able to quantify in detail the effects of amount of alcohol exposure on the developing brain.
Lin Gao, who led the study, said: ‘This work presents major evidence that children exposed to alcohol prenatally are at risk of suffering from impaired cognitive abilities and other secondary factors.
‘Our study shows that there is no safe amount or safe stages during pregnancy for alcohol consumption.
‘We all hope this work inspires other groups to conduct similarly collaborative research on disorders like FASD that benefit from drawing together medical and computational fields.’
Responding to the study, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) Director for Scotland, Dr Mary Ross Davie, told The National: ‘We welcome this study which provides us with further insight into the long-term effects that alcohol consumed during pregnancy can have on the brain development of the baby.‘Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) resulting from drinking alcohol in pregnancy can have a serious and life long impact on a person’s life right into adulthood.‘This study reaffirms the advice from midwives and the RCM to all women that no level of drinking in pregnancy is safe.‘We would advise any woman who is trying to become pregnant or who thinks they may be in the early stages of pregnancy to refrain from drinking any alcohol. If you need help or support to do this, please do speak to your GP or midwife.’
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