INDIANAPOLIS — Researchers from the School of Science at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis hope to increase awareness of the risks of drinking alcohol while pregnant.
Jim Marrs, associate professor of biology, has spent the past decade researching fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. His lab, which includes six undergraduate student researchers, conducts research to determine what stages of embryonic development are most sensitive to ethanol (alcohol) and which organs are most affected during these developmental windows.
Marrs uses zebrafish to model fetal alcohol syndrome and study how ethanol interferes with normal development. The embryos can be tested for effects of exposure from very early development, mimicking exposure in a woman’s first trimester of pregnancy.
“The earliest stages of development are the most sensitive to environmental toxins,” Marrs said. “Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) are the most prevalent, preventable birth defects. The rates of this disease haven’t changed, despite increasing awareness. There still needs to be more awareness and more research to understand the consequences.”
The U.S. Surgeon General advises pregnant women and women who are considering becoming pregnant to abstain from alcohol consumption to eliminate alcohol-exposed pregnancies; yet it is estimated that 40,000 babies are born each year with FASDs, which describe a range of effects that can happen to a fetus when a woman drinks alcohol during her pregnancy.
Alcohol in the mother’s blood passes to the baby through the placenta and the umbilical cord. There is no known safe amount or type of alcohol to drink during pregnancy. FASDs can impact children’s physical, mental, behavioral or cognitive development. The most recognized condition along the continuum of FASDs, fetal alcohol syndrome, is characterized by growth deficiencies, central nervous system disabilities and specific facial characteristics, and is the most preventable form of intellectual disability. The number of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome alone is comparable to spina bifida or Down syndrome.
This summer, Marrs was awarded a $217,274 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to conduct further research on congenital heart defects resulting from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Marrs will work with research associate Swapnalee Sarmah, on the two-year project.
Marrs’ research was initially funded as a pilot project by the Indiana Alcohol Research Center, on the IUPUI campus. The center, established in 1987, continues to be source of consultation and collaboration for Marrs.
Marrs hopes his continued research will help bring a better understanding to the effects of FASDs so it can lead to wider awareness, better therapy for adults or future regenerative medicine for the innocent victims of these disorders.
To prevent FASDs, a woman should not drink alcohol while she is pregnant or if she might be pregnant. In the United States, nearly half of all pregnancies are unplanned. If a woman is drinking alcohol during pregnancy, it is never too late to stop. Because brain growth takes place throughout pregnancy, the sooner a woman stops drinking the safer it will be for her and her baby.
About the School of Science
The School of Science at IUPUI is committed to excellence in teaching, research and service in the biological, physical, behavioral and mathematical sciences. The school is dedicated to being a leading resource for interdisciplinary research and science education in support of Indiana’s effort to expand and diversify its economy.