Behind the headlines: Can exposure in the womb leave a taste for alcohol?

Children whose mothers drink during pregnancy could develop a taste for alcohol later in life, media reports have claimed.

US researchers believe exposure to alcohol in the womb can reduce sensitivity to alcohol, making alcoholic drinks more appealing. Previous findings stated the younger people are when they first drink alcohol, the more likely they are to become addicted to alcohol in later life.

Drinking alcohol may carry risks (Photograph: bsip, raguet h/science photo library)

What is the research?
Female rats were exposed to ethanol in pregnancy and their offspring were then offered three different diets: ethanol, sweet water or bitter water.

Offspring of rats that consumed alcohol during pregnancy preferred ethanol and consumed more of the bitter water than the offspring of mothers that did not consume alcohol.

Rats exposed to alcohol early on retained their preference for alcohol later in life.

What do the researchers say?
Dr Steven Youngentob, from New York Upstate Medical University, said the results demonstrated that alcohol exposure in the womb causes changes in the development of the olfactory and taste system.

'Fetal exposure increased ethanol acceptability and intake, in part by decreasing the bitter component of ethanol's flavour and enhancing the preference to its odour,' he said.

'Applying the data to humans, our data suggest that the changes we observed contribute to the risk of intake and abuse in adolescence because alcohol smells and tastes better.'

What do other researchers say?
Don Shenker, chief executive of Alcohol Concern, said the research added to a growing body of evidence that drinking during pregnancy may pose a variety of risks.

'Unfortunately this area is hard to assess because the research is not all that detailed or comprehensive and women receive conflicting information,' he said.

'Women have to weigh up the evidence and make their own decisions, but if they have any concerns they should steer clear of drinking alcohol during pregnancy,' he added.

Informing patients

  • Rats exposed to ethanol in the womb developed a taste for alcohol later in life.
  • Alcohol exposure in the womb may lower sensitivity to alcohol, making it more appealing.
  • Mothers should be warned of the dangers of drinking alcohol in pregnancy.

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