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Before conception: Father’s use of alcohol can contribute to brain and facial defects in offspring


According to the U.S. Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects in their unborn child. However, research at Texas A&M University now demonstrates that a father’s alcohol consumption also links to growth defects that affect the development of his offspring’s brain, skull, and face. 

Research investigating fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) exclusively examines maternal alcohol exposure.

However, because men drink more and are more likely to binge drink than women, Dr. Michael Golding, an associate professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology, and his team set out to challenge the existing dogma, using a mouse model to examine what happens when the mother, father, and both parents consume alcohol.

In a new article published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, Golding and his team found that male alcohol consumption before conception caused FAS brain and facial growth defects.

“We found that male exposures actually drive certain craniofacial differences much stronger than maternal exposures do, so this programming effect that’s coming through sperm has a profound effect on the organization of the face and the growth and proportion of different facial features,” Golding said. “When it was the dad drinking, we saw a profound shift in the organization of the face.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), FAS is a fetal disorder caused by maternal alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

FAS is hard to diagnose, but when doing so, doctors currently look for abnormal facial features; lower-than-average weight, height, or both; central nervous system problems such as a small head size, problems with attention and hyperactivity, or poor coordination; and verification of maternal alcohol use during pregnancy. 

“When doctors suspect a child has FAS, they sit down with the mother to confirm the diagnosis by discussing her drinking habits during pregnancy,” Golding shared. “It’s not uncommon for the mother to deny consuming alcohol while pregnant. When they do, there’s this stigma or this notion that women are lying about their alcohol use.” 

Golding said this research, which was funded by a Medical Research Grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation and the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, reveals a potential blind spot in the current diagnostic criteria for FAS, the most severe form of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which requires documentation of maternal alcohol use during pregnancy.

“Our research proves there’s a plausible alternative explanation — the father’s contribution, which has never been examined before,” he said. “In this study, we call into question the dismissal of the mother’s denial and really examine the capacity of male alcohol use to induce FAS growth defects.”