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Med Students Publish Fetal Alcohol Research

June 16, 2010 – Researchers have long pinpointed alcohol’s damaging effects on the fetus, but a new study released on June 16 by Georgetown medical students shows not much more progress has occurred for early detection or treatment of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS).

“Although there is a lot of research in the field to determine how alcohol acts on the developing brain, there is not much translation into the clinic,” said Sahar Ismail (M’13), one of four first-year students in the School of Medicine who authored the research published in the June 16 online edition of Developmental Neuroscience.

Ismail and her peers -- Stephanie Buckley (M’13), Ross Budacki (M’13) and Ahmad Jabbar (M’13) -- looked into the science and clinical treatment of fetal alcohol syndrome, and found that although there is much ongoing study, no new strategies exist to change the grim outcomes that can occur once a fetus is exposed to alcohol.

“What surprised us the most was the lack of sensitive and specific diagnostic tools to identify children with FAS, given its prevalence and harmful effects on the child, family and society,” Ismail said.

When consumed, alcohol is carried from the mother to the child through blood that flows through the umbilical cord. Alcohol can cause dramatic and irreversible effects on the fetus, such as developmental delay, head and facial irregularities, seizures, hyperactivity, attention deficits, cognitive deficits, learning and memory impairments, poor psychosocial functioning, facial irregularities and motor coordination deficits.

The team of first-years worked on the study as a project for the Sexual Development and Reproduction Module under Ian Gallicano, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology.

“Not every woman who drinks alcohol will have a child with FAS,” said Gallicano, “but because so much remains unknown, women are still advised not to drink any time during pregnancy.”

What is clear, however, is that alcohol is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation, according to the study. FAS is relatively uncommon, affecting .2 to 1.5 live births in every 1,000, but fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which are often less severe, are much more common and have a broad range of the same symptoms.

“Taken together, both FAS and FASD, are more common than the public realizes but are entirely preventable,” Ismail said.

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