By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Researchers believe they are only beginning to identify the growing number of children exposed to alcohol before birth.  Right now, one in 20 first graders feel the effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, which will often be labeled as other behavioral issues.

But, breakthroughs at the University of Minnesota could help kid’s live better lives.

Dr. Jeff Wozniak is focused on facts and not finger-pointing at the Center for Neurobehavioral Development at the University of Minnesota.

“We are really trying to push beyond blaming women for this condition,” Wozniak said.

His career shift to director of research for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders started decades ago when he saw too many kids in his own clinic that weren’t keeping up.

“Realizing these kids were affected by a very unique combination of defects,” Wozniak said.

Behavioral and judgment problems lead him to look at their brains.

“All of that wiring is disturbed in the brain damage that’s happened to this child here,” he said.

When compared to other drugs, Wozniak points out that alcohol produces the most serious behavioral effects for life — more so than using opioids, cocaine, meth or marijuana.

“Alcohol is the most dangerous substance to the developing brain, and it’s not because of its legality or it’s morality, it’s because of its biology,” Dr. Wozniak said.

But, perhaps even more sobering is how soon problems can start.

“The damage to the developing brain and body can take place as early as those first few weeks of pregnancy,” he said.

In many cases, Wozniak knows that’s when women don’t know they’re pregnant. Animal studies have proven one night of binge drinking in that time-frame can cause Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

In addition to prevention, his team is also looking at the possibility of reversing the effects.

“There’s more hope from the neuroscience perspective that we can influence development and actually make changes especially when we catch these conditions early,” he said.

In the only such study like it in the world, nearly 100 kids prenatally exposed to alcohol have been drinking a vitamin called choline. So far, it’s showing promise improving their memories. The final results of the study are expected sometime next year.

“We wanted to study the range of kids who had mild impairment to severe impairments so we would really know whether this nutrient can have an effect on that whole range or not,” he said.

All while Wozniak pushes forward with public education, committed to healthier babies and to life-changing treatments.

“We won’t just stop and say we have a person with a developmental delay so they’ll have to live with it. That’s’ not good enough,” he said.

Liz Collin

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