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Dangers to Your Unborn Child

Exposure to lead, alcohol and anesthesia in the womb linked to brain injury

FRIDAY, Feb. 13, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Exposure to lead, alcohol and anesthesia in the womb can cause brain damage and result in problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome and schizophrenia.

That's what researchers reported Feb. 13 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Seattle.

Columbia University psychiatrist Dr. Ezra Susser and his colleagues say their findings suggest a link between exposure to lead in the womb and schizophrenia in young adults.

"The results of our study suggest that lead-induced prenatal damage to the developing brain may show itself decades following initial exposure to the substance," Susser says in a prepared statement.

At the same symposium, Washington University psychiatrist Dr. John W. Olney released new findings about the damage that anesthesia and alcohol can do to the developing brain.

In previous research, Olney and his colleagues found alcohol and anesthetic drugs can cause large numbers of nerve cells in the brains of developing rodents to commit suicide. In their most recent research, they concluded it takes only brief exposure to small amounts of alcohol and anesthetic to trigger brain cell death.

"Alcohol has been damaging the human fetal brain for centuries, but the link between alcohol and fetal brain damage was not recognized until 30 years ago. That alcohol damages the brain by driving neurons to commit suicide was discovered only very recently," Olney says in a prepared statement.

"Now, we are finding that anesthetic drugs can also have this effect, and Dr. Susser's findings raise the question whether the same is true for lead," Olney says.

Based on the research findings, Olney says he's certain that anesthetics cause brain cell death in animals. But it's unclear how sensitive human brains are to this mechanism.

"While the issue is being resolved, it is best to avoid exposing fetuses or infants to general anesthetics whenever possible. For example, elective surgical procedures should be postponed, and surgical procedures that are absolutely necessary can in some cases be performed under a local anesthetic, or possibly with the aid of painkilling drugs that eliminate all pain but do not put a patient to sleep. Feasibility of the latter approach is currently under study," Olney says.

More information

Here's where you can learn more about alcohol and pregnancy.

SOURCE: American Association for the Advancement of Science, news release, Feb. 13, 2004
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