By: Alice G. Walton

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In the last few years, it’s become clear that what we do in our lives prior to conceiving a child can affect the health and mental health of the child years down the road. And this goes for both parents, not just the mother. Now, a new study published in the journal Alcohol finds that when alcohol is consumed during adolescence and before conception, it can affect the brains of the offspring—if you’re a rat, anyway. But the researchers say that given the overlap in the two species’ brains, and what we know from prior human studies, the results likely apply to humans. Which means that a few bingeing episodes in high school or college might actually affect the health of one’s child down the road.

The researchers exposed certain groups of male and female rats to the equivalent of six bingeing episodes during their adolescence. Then, after the rats were “sober,” different groups of mice were paired up in various ways to have offspring. For instance, females who’d been exposed to alcohol mated with males who either had or had not been exposed to alcohol. And male rats who had been exposed to alcohol mated with females who either had or hadn’t been exposed.

The expression of genes in certain brain regions of the offspring were shifted, compared to those of animals whose parents hadn’t been exposed to alcohol. In the hypothalamus, for example, which is the area that governs body functions like sleep, stress, eating and reproduction, there were a number of genetic changes. And overall, there were changes to 159 genes in the offspring of mothers who’d been exposed to alcohol, and 93 in the offspring of fathers who’d been exposed, and 244 genes in the offspring of both parents.

Again, the study took place in rats, so it’s unclear how the results would apply to humans. There are lots of known overlaps in the brains of rats and people, but we don’t know much about how teenage binge drinking in humans affects the brains of offspring years later. It would be unethical to devise an experiment like this in humans, of course, but we do have some clues from other types of studies.

“Clinical research has long shown that children of alcoholic parents are at a higher risk for developing mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, as well as alcohol abuse,” says study author AnnaDorothea Asimes, “but this was often attributed to child-rearing in homes where emotional instability and alcohol abuse were easily observed. Recent research has also shown that there are molecular changes to the DNA in children who were exposed to alcohol during fetal development as well as children who were exposed to stress early in life, indicating that environment can induce similar changes to DNA in humans as we see in rodent models.”

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