Peter Carlen imageChildren with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a form of permanent brain damage resulting from fetal exposure to alcohol, have a significantly higher risk of developing epilepsy and seizures later in life, according to a national study.

A team of scientists from six Canadian institutions examined the medical histories of two groups of FASD patients and found that 6 per cent of them had epilepsy, while 12 per cent had experienced one or more seizures in their lifetime. By comparison, less than 1 per cent of the general population is expected to develop epilepsy. Fetal exposure to alcohol during the first trimester or throughout the entire pregnancy further increased the risk of epilepsy or having a history of seizures, researchers found.

The study results build on a growing body of evidence that drinking during pregnancy may put a child at risk for a greater variety of neurological and behavioural health problems than previously thought.

"We are dealing with an enormous problem for Canadian society and many other societies," says the study's senior author, Dr. Peter Carlen, a neurologist specializing in epilepsy in the Krembil Neuroscience division of the Toronto Western Hospital.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, no amount of alcohol is safe to consume during pregnancy. FASD affects around 1 per cent of Canada's population. People with FASD may have difficulty adding and subtracting, reasoning, getting along with others, and understanding the consequences of their actions. According to some estimates, nearly half of all prison inmates come from mothers who drank during pregnancy.

The study, which was a collaborative effort among researchers from Queen's University, Toronto Western Research Institute and St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto, and the University of Alberta, will be published in the June issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"I am very excited by the results," says Dr. Carlen, who came up with the idea for the study. "We also have very exciting relevant laboratory results, showing remarkable postnatal hyper-excitability in brain slices from guinea pigs exposed to alcohol during gestation, which we are planning to publish in near future. I think the scenario is fascinating from both a scientific and social perspective. It's a huge problem that deserves a lot of research."

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