Emerging research on biomarkers and nutritional supplements

Egg yolks are considered a good source of choline, a nutrient that may reduce the harms of prenatal alcohol exposure

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) in the United States has recently released a 6-page summary called  Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: Understanding the Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure. It summarizes the latest research on the full spectrum of alcohol-related developmental disorders, new diagnostic tools that can detect these disorders, and promising interventions and treatment options.

Of particular interest to a prevention audience is the very emerging research on nutritional supplements and some more info on the latest biomarkers research.

The authors comment on animal studies exploring the role of certain nutrients,  such as zinc, folate, and choline, in  helping to protect a developing fetus from the harms of alcohol. Choline appears to be the most researched nutrient. Some animal studies are showing that newborns given choline supplements and exposed to alcohol had less alcohol-related birth weight reductions, physical defects, and changes in behavior. It also appears that being administered choline postnatally could improve symptoms such as alcohol-related memory problems later in adulthood.

The subject of biomarker screening, in particular fatty acid ethyl ester (FAEE) screening in newborn meconium (a baby’s first stools), is something that I’ve mentioned several times before on this blog. Biomarkers are basically chemicals in fluids or tissues that change as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. While blood and urine can be tested for alcohol, they only tell us about alcohol use close to the time of consumption. Other biomarkers that are currently being investigated include:

  • Phosphatidylethanol (PEth) —PEth is a product of alcohol metabolism that may indicate heavy maternal drinking levels. It shows up in a newborn’s blood.
  • Fatty acid ethyl ester (FAEE) screening—FAEEs, which are products of alcohol metabolism, are present in babies exposed to alcohol late in pregnancy, and they build up in hair and stool of the fetus and can be measured in the meconium or hair of the newborn.
  • microRNA screening—Particular types of microRNA, or non–protein-coding RNAs, may change as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure
  • Protein (or proteomic) screening—This method looks for a possible pattern of proteins that may change in the presence of alcohol.

For more on nutritional supplements, see an earlier post FASD Prevention and Prenatal Nutrition (March 29, 2011).

For more on biomarkers and meconium screening, see earlier posts: