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Can babies be protected from alcoholic moms?

New research in animals suggests that the sins of the mother won't inevitably be visited on the child. Even if a pregnant woman drinks heavily -- despite 25 years of warnings not to -- it may be possible to offset some of the alcohol's toxic effects on her baby's brain after she gives birth.

In newborn rats that were fed alcohol to simulate a binge-drinking mother, the alcohol did less damage to memory functions and behavior if the infant rats were given supplements of choline, a nutrient found naturally in such foods as eggs and liver, researchers reported last week in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience.

"We would like women not to drink at all during pregnancy -- prevention is the ultimate goal," said Jennifer Thomas of San Diego State University. But if they do anyway, "the hope is that there might be some treatment that could be initiated after the child is born."

Last week's study, she said, is the first to show that choline -- even given after birth -- might be able to "reduce some of the adverse behavioral effects of early alcohol exposure."

Though most of the 4 million American women who give birth each year drink little, if any, alcohol during pregnancy, an estimated 125,000 continue to drink heavily.

Such drinking often results in an array of symptoms known as fetal alcohol syndrome. The baby's facial features may be subtly abnormal; size and weight may fall well below average; and brain effects can range from retardation to hyperactivity.

Drinking during pregnancy is considered "the leading known preventable cause of mental retardation and birth defects," said Tom Donaldson , president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, an advocacy and education group. Estimates of the prevalence of fetal alcohol syndrome vary, but it appears that several thousand American babies each year are born with the full-fledged syndrome and tens of thousands with a lesser version that includes fewer, milder symptoms.

Over the last few years, researchers studying animals have explored several different routes in hopes of counteracting the effects of the alcohol on the fetal brain -- ranging from antioxidants to chemicals that encourage neurons to grow. But it is tricky to find a substance that can be given to pregnant women or babies with minimal risk.

It is also unclear exactly how alcohol damages a baby's brain, Thomas said; it appears to work through several different mechanisms and on a wide variety of areas of the brain. She and her colleagues decided to try choline, she said, because it is extremely safe, and other research had shown that it could improve brain function in normal baby rats.

Thomas is often asked whether pregnant women who drink should take extra choline, or whether the parents of babies with fetal alcohol damage should add choline to the babies' diets. It is simply too early to answer those questions, she said, and she lacks data to determine what the correct doses of choline would be for humans.

She hopes to begin clinical trials in humans soon, Thomas said. In the meantime, parents and parents-to-be should follow the choline doses already recommended by federal diet authorities, she said, and be aware that more and more foods these days contain added choline, from children's vitamins to health-food cereals.

The recommended doses for pregnant women are about 450 milligrams a day; the doses for children are much smaller and depend on body weight.

Carey Goldberg can be reached at