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BU professor strives to reverse FAS manifestations

By : Sarah Lifshin

Studying the effects of alcohol on newborn rats, Anna Klintsova, a BU assistant professor of psychology, is leading a team of researchers in developing ways to help those suffering from the body and mind-altering effects of fetal alcohol Syndrome.
Throughout the first few months of pregnancy, most mothers are careful about their every action. They eat healthy foods, decrease stress in their lives and moderately exercise, all in preparation for delivery of a healthy baby.

However, for the 1 percent of American children born each year facing a life filled with ailments and emotional scars resulting from fetal alcohol syndrome, there is proof that not all pregnant females share the same priorities.

Research shows that drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol, taking drugs and smoking cigarettes can have detrimental effects on a fetus. However, a Binghamton University psychology professor is working to prove that in some cases those manifestations are reversible.

Anna Klintsova, assistant professor of psychology, is leading a team of researchers in developing ways to help those suffering from the body and mind-altering effects of fetal alcohol syndrome in order to help them rehabilitate from the scars their mother’s actions have left.

“I will never be able to understand how or why a mother could intentionally harm her child,” said Klintsova, who joined the University in 2002. “Females often don’t understand the detrimental affects their slight actions will have on the lives of their children.”

Still, in a small laboratory in Science 4, some of Klintsova’s most active and diligent researchers are the newborn rats she feeds alcohol-milk cocktails during their first days of life. The damaging consequences to the rats from drinking the alcohol mimic similar exposure in humans.

Using what she refers to as an Olympic obstacle course, rats are timed and rated for their ability to complete different physical challenges — from crossing narrow bridges to climbing a strand of rope. The accuracy and time needed to complete the different tasks demonstrate how alcohol has altered the rodents’ brain activities.

For nearly eight years, in conjunction with researchers at the University of Illinois, Klintsova has engaged in FAS research, a confirmed ailment leading to damage to a fetus’s central nervous system during the second and third trimesters of pregnancy. Resulting side effects include facial malformations, developmental damage and impairment to motor skills.

“The brain is rapidly developing when most of the neurons are forming those structures,” she said. “A growth spurt occurs during the third trimester of pregnancy and that is the period where the effect of alcohol is quite detrimental.”

While many people believe that alcohol would potentially kill the fetus in the early stages of development, Klintsova said many of those afflicted do survive — faced with life-altering ailments such as severe facial abnormalities, lower IQ, clumsiness, brain damage, social problems, depression and drug and alcohol problems. She has learned that FAS is high among Native American populations, especially in New Mexico, where she says evidence proves that alcoholism is an established trend.

“These children are not very at ease with their motor coordination,” she said. “For a parent, especially the caring ones who didn’t do anything wrong except for having a couple of binge drinking episodes during the last phase of pregnancy, this can be very upsetting. “It really depends on the amount of alcohol that the mother drinks,” Klintsova said. “If a mother is a really, really heavy drinker, there might just be a miscarriage very early in the pregnancy but that is not always the case if the mother is a moderate drinker or maybe not drinking at all in the beginning months.”

But, Klintsova said, one of the most distinguishing marks FAS leaves on children is often the facial scars and abnormalities, a lifelong reminder of their mothers’ mistakes. Her research has allowed her to pick out those suffering from the syndrome while walking through a store or mall — an indicator that her research is far from complete.

Using the rats from their first days of life, Klintsova and her researchers — six undergraduates, one graduate student and a technician — begin the rodents’ intoxication early in order for it to be equivalent to the third trimester in a human fetus since a rat is only in a womb for 21 days. Inducement begins within the first four days of life. In terms of brain development, the rats are born at approximately the beginning of the human third trimester.

Research begins slowly with the rats receiving alcohol during the first five days. “We let them sort of adapt a little and grow a bit from birth to day four,” she said. “Then through the ninth day of life, they begin to binge drink. What happens is that they are knocked out significantly. They become really drunk.”

A month later, the rats, which are now at an age equivalent to a teenager or young adult, are exposed to a complete physical challenge to test their every move, speed and motor skills. In their small containment area, they must first walk parallel bars, later running on a rotating rod and climbing a rope. Like humans, the results are damaging, Klintsova said.

“We demonstrated that they are significantly worse in their skills when they are exposed to alcohol,” Klintsova said. “Alcohol is definitely an altering factor.” Rehabilitation to the cerebellum, the section of the brain which controls motor skills and coordination, begins immediately. The researchers then train the animals on the acrobatic obstacles, repeatedly showing them over 20 days how to correctly perform the tasks. “We train them again and again until we begin to notice improvement,” she said.

However, like humans, there is currently no proven way to rehabilitate. “In terms of humans, it is harder to show progress in children because it’s difficult to obtain permission to work with children … obviously the greatest advantage would be to do that,” she said. “A child’s nervous system is very plastic and children could be very susceptible to more interventions like that.”

But in a world where no cure exists, Klintsova hopes that her research will lead to changes. “The conclusion that we can make is that the intervention must be very, very targeted,” she said. “If we want to improve a certain behavioral function, then we need to use training that is aimed at that particular function of the brain.”

But Klintsova said the only way to keep a fetus safe is by not consuming any alcohol or drugs while pregnant. “When the fetus is fully formed and all the parts of the body could be seen by an ultrasound some people think that is okay and that a few glasses of wine will not harm the baby,” Klintsova said. “The danger here is the binge drinking and they are truly hurting the child they are bringing into this world.”

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Last Updated: 10/14/08