November 30, 2021

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Research project to explore how pre-natal alcohol exposure leads to ‘anxious’ offspring

Born to mothers who used alcohol during their pregnancy, these individuals were apparently primed to be anxious. They fretted about leaving the safe confines of home and were more likely to turn to alcohol themselves to ease the pressures of life.

While these troubled offspring are rats rather than human children, they may bring insight into the underpinnings of addiction and the power of alcohol to shape brains even in the womb.

Associate Professor of Psychology Marvin Diaz recently received a five-year, $1.74 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focused on these animal studies. Called “Prenatal Alcohol and Anxiety: An Ontogenetic Role for CRF,” the research centers around the system that regulates corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), a peptide that’s released during periods of stress and anxiety.

“The grant is really focused on developing our understanding of the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure,” he said. “We know that a certain percentage of women drink during pregnancy and that the effects of alcohol on the developing fetus can last throughout their lifetime.”

Offspring exposed to alcohol in the womb experience a higher incident of anxiety disorders later in life, which may also be correlated with an increased predisposition to develop alcohol use disorders themselves. However, researchers don’t currently have a full understanding of the brain changes contributing to the behavior.

That’s where animal models — the rats — come in. So, how do you tell if a rat is anxious?

Rats and mice are typically nocturnal animals and wary about navigating open spaces because of the risk of predators. When nervous, they tend to hide in corners, underbrush and other hidden spaces, Diaz explained.

During experiments, the rats are put into an apparatus where they can choose to stay in an enclosed compartment or venture out into an open area. Their choices can indicate whether they are experiencing anxiety-like behavior or a fear response, Diaz explained.

The research will attempt to capture how these behaviors and the CRF system change across the lifespan and their relationship to alcohol intake. To that end, they will focus on three different age points to see if these effects are dynamic as the offspring mature, whether they emerge later in life or even lessen in time.

Through this project, Diaz hopes to learn how the CRF system naturally develops, which is currently unknown. It could eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatment options in human patients at some point in the future.

“This grant is aimed at helping us to ask those questions and really test the relationship between anxiety and the predisposition to use alcohol following prenatal alcohol exposure,” he said.