There may also be much subtler, lesser-known consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure, such as an increased risk of adolescent alcohol abuse. Two researchers from New-York recently added a piece to this puzzle.
The researchers fed pregnant moms either a diet containing ethanol or a regular diet, and then studied how the offspring reacted towards ethanol once they grew up to be teenagers or adults. Oh, and by pregnant moms I mean pregnant rat moms! The study’s first finding is that the offspring from the ethanol-fed moms enjoyed the taste of ethanol a lot more than the offspring of the regular moms. This was measured using a “lick” test: the teenage rats were given solutions of ethanol in increasing concentrations and the researchers counted how much the rats licked the solution compared with water. To try to better understand this finding, the researchers then did the same test but for a bitter tasting liquid. They found that teenage rats exposed to prenatal ethanol had a much better tolerance for the taste of the bitter liquid. Since rats are known to think that alcohol tastes both bitter and sweet, the researchers then tested whether the teenage rats from ethanol-fed moms also thought sugar tasted sweeter than the other rats, but there was no difference there. So this means that the rats that were exposed to ethanol in the womb find that ethanol tastes less bitter and equally sweet as regular rats, tipping the balance towards tasty and away from aversive.
The rats were then tested on how they perceived the smell of ethanol. Sure enough, the teenage rats from ethanol-fed moms seemed to appreciate the smell of ethanol more than the normal rats. Furthermore, their appreciation of the smell also led them to consume more ethanol!
Taken together, this means that exposing rats to ethanol in the womb would lead them to drink more as teenagers by making ethanol taste and smell better. The good news is these findings do not persist into adulthood. Even then, this study puts forward very relevant findings, especially since ethanol exposure during gestation is the best predictor of teenage abuse. The research offers a simple explanation: FASD teenagers may consume more alcohol simple because to them, beer tastes like triple-chocolate brownie fudge sundae with cookie dough to them (that’s the most delicious-sounding analogy I could come up with!). The researchers also point out that other drugs such as tobacco or marijuana have similar chemical smell and taste signatures, and therefore these findings may have broad implications for the link between maternal drug use and how vulnerable you are as a child or teenager.
Personally, the enjoyment I derive from alcohol consumption doesn’t nearly outweigh the consequences of potentially booze crazy teenagers. When the time comes to grow a family, I won’t be taking any chances, thank you very much.