Prenatal Alcohol Exposure: Fetal programming, stress responsiveness, and vulnerability to depression and addiction

Women who consume large quantities of alcohol during their pregnancy can deliver babies with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) or Alcohol Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder (ARND). Adults with FAS/ARND can exhibit a range of motor, behavioural and neurodevelopmental deficits. They also have higher rates of addiction and depression compared to the normal population. However, the relationship between prenatal exposure to alcohol and these psychiatric conditions is not known. One consequence of prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) is re-programming of the neural system involved in stress, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Activation of the HPA axis during stressful situations is, in the short term, an adaptive response. But prolonged activation or an inability to “shut off” this system can have drastic consequences on brain function and behaviour. HPA dysfunction is implicated in the cause of depression, and activation of this system through stress can influence the initiation and maintenance of, as well as relapse to, drug addiction. Kim Hellemans is exploring how changes in the neural wiring of the HPA through PAE influences behaviours and neuroendocrine function associated with addiction and depression. Early targeting and prevention of psychiatric conditions is a critical goal of health research; the aim of Kim’s research is to determine whether normalizing HPA dysfunction in children with FAS/ARND can prevent their vulnerability to depression and addiction in adulthood.