The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded the University of New Mexico’s Department of Neurosciences $8.1 million over the next five years to support the New Mexico Alcohol Research Center at the Health Sciences Center – just one of 18 alcohol research centers in the U.S. and the only NIH alcohol research center targeting fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

The neurodevelopmental disorder caused by prenatal alcohol exposure is known to cause functional brain damage, depending on the quantity, frequency and timing of drinking during pregnancy in conjunction with other pregnancy risk factors, such as smoking, malnutrition, lack of prenatal care and poor maternal health. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder affects more than 10,000 newborns each year – more than autism.

Research shows that alcohol consumption during pregnancy increases the risk of life-long consequences for a child, including problems with memory, intellectual ability, attention, executive function, language expression, social perception and abstract thinking. These cognitive deficits put children with fetal alcohol disorders at greater risk for developing a range of problems, like school failures, inability to stay employed, dependent living and trouble with the law. Moreover, recent studies suggest that as children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder mature, they might be at greater risk for mental health issues like substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and psychosis, as well as medical conditions that could include obesity, diabetes, hypertension and certain cancers.

“Despite public awareness campaigns and warning labels on alcoholic beverage containers, each year more than half a million women in the U.S. continue to drink during their pregnancies,” says Daniel Savage, PhD, UNM regents professor and chair of the Department of Neurosciences. “Children and adults with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder have real difficulties with basic life skills. Our center will be looking for biomarkers of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder as well as effective behavioral, educational and therapeutic interventions that we can take to our communities.”

UNM’s center is comprised of teams of basic scientists and clinical investigators who will focus on advancing the understanding of how prenatal alcohol exposure can result in functional brain damage causing life-long neurobehavioral consequences. Researchers also hope to develop more effective approaches for the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder through reliable biomarkers of alcohol exposure, particularly earlier in life. And the center aims to develop more effective interventions for fetal alcohol-related behavioral deficits.