Alcohol is a dangerous recreational substance because of its availability and the economic, social, and biological problems that it can cause. Fetal alcohol exposure, although preventable, is particularly harmful to a developing embryo. This exposure often causes fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), the symptoms of which include learning disabilities and psychological hardships with comorbidities such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit disorder. One of the main teratogenic effects of alcohol is the effect on epigenetic modifications and altered gene expression during development. These modifications involve changes in the methylation and condensation of DNA that then alters the expression of specific genes into proteins.
The first trimester is a particularly important timeframe of focus since this is a critical time in embryonic development and also a time when women may consume excessive amounts of alcohol before they know they are pregnant. In my Honors Thesis project I aimed to examine the effects of prenatal ethanol exposure on both behavior and gene expression in a rat model system. I used quantitative reverse transcriptase PCR to study the expression of two DNA methyl transferase genes critical for epigenetic modification and another gene associated with neuronal function and psychiatric disorders. Expression levels of these genes were altered in response to prenatal alcohol exposure. Behavior studies involving the Morris Water Maze and forced swim test to study to spatial learning and depression, respectively, suggested that alcohol does affect behavior, although these differences were not statistically significant. This is the first study to analyze the gene expression and behavioral effects that a realistic level of alcohol consumption has on a developing embryo during the first trimester.
Willey, Sarah, "The Effects of Fetal Alcohol Exposure on Gene Expression and Associated Behavioral Markers in Sprague Dawley Rats" (2017). Biology Honors Papers. 25.
The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.