Young people whose mothers drank when pregnant may be more likely to abuse alcohol because, in the womb, their developing senses came to prefer its taste and smell. Researchers with the State University of New York Developmental Ethanol Research Center have found that because the developing nervous system adapts to whatever mothers eat and drink, young rats exposed to alcohol (ethanol) in the womb drank significantly more alcohol than non-exposed rats.
These findings, covered in two related studies, appear in the December issue of Behavioral Neuroscience. The studies contribute a critical biological piece to the complex puzzle of why teens with a family history of drinking may themselves drink more. Lead author Steven Youngentob, PhD, observes that a biologically instilled preference for alcohol's taste and smell can make young people much more likely to abuse alcohol, especially in light of social pressures, risk-taking tendencies and alcohol's addicting qualities.
Given the concern about young people who may not even know that they are entering a high-risk period for alcohol abuse, Youngentob's message for prevention is clear: "Keep kids away from alcohol, especially those that had fetal exposure." There is particular concern about the alcohol industry marketing flavored alcoholic beverages to youth as fun drinks similar to soft drinks, given that for some potential drinkers, the strong positive preference for alcohol won't subside until well into adulthood.
"The even more basic message is that there is no time during pregnancy when it is safe to drink," adds Youngentob.