Drinking just one or two glasses a week whilst pregnant could have a negative impact on a child’s IQ, according to a new report from British researchers.
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Previous studies have produced inconsistent and confusing evidence on whether low to moderate levels of alcohol are harmful in pregnancy.
But a Department of Health spokesman said that since 2007 their advice had been that women who are trying to conceive or are pregnant should avoid alcohol.
Now, a study carried out by researchers from Oxford and Bristol universities has shown that even a ‘moderate’ alcohol intake of one to six units during pregnancy affected IQ of the unborn child.
Writing in PLOS One journal, the researchers looked at the IQ scored of 4,000 children and recorded the alcohol intake of their mothers.
They looked at four genetic variants in alcohol-metabolising genes in children and their mothers, and found that on average the child’s IQ aged eight was almost two points lower per genetic modification they possessed.
They effect was only seen among the children of women who drank between one and six drinks a week during pregnancy, and it was not seen among women who abstained when they were pregnant.
The normal span of intelligence is 20 points, from 90 to 110, so the effect is small for an individual. However, it could have a noticeable impact on the population as a whole.
Whilst a causal effect could not be proven, the study strongly suggested that it was exposure to alcohol in the womb that was responsible for differences in child IQ. The gene changes were unconnected to social of lifestyle effects.
Study leader Dr Ron Gray from Oxford University said that a lower IQ had been shown to be associated with being socially disadvantaged, having poorer health and dying younger.
Dr Clare Tower, consultant in obstetrics and fetal maternal medicine, at St Mary's Hospital, Manchester, emphasised that women who have had the occasional alcoholic drink in pregnancy should not be overly alarmed by the findings. She said:
"Current UK advice is that the safest course of action is abstinence during pregnancy. The finding of this study would concur that this is undoubtedly the safest advice."
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