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Moderate drinking in pregnancy can lower a child's IQ

Children's intelligence can be influenced by even small levels of exposure to alcohol in the womb, according to a new study led by researchers from the universities of Bristol and Oxford.

Current advice to pregnant women about moderate alcohol consumption during pregnancy is contradictory, as it is both recommending complete abstinence and suggesting drinking moderately is safe.

The study, which looked at moderate alcohol intake in more than 4,000 women, is described as the first substantial one of its kind. It used genetic variation to investigate the effects of moderate (less than 1 to 6 units of alcohol per week) drinking during pregnancy.

The 4,167 children’s IQ was tested when they were aged eight, and four genetic variants in alcohol-metabolising genes among the children were strongly related to lower IQ. The child’s IQ was on average almost two points lower per genetic modification they possessed.

However, this effect was only seen among the children of women who were moderate drinkers. There was no effect evident among children whose mothers abstained during pregnancy, strongly suggesting that it was the exposure to alcohol in the womb that was leading to the difference in child IQ.

Dr Ron Gray, from the University of Oxford who led the research, added, ‘This is a complex study but the message is simple: even moderate amounts of alcohol during pregnancy can have an effect on future child intelligence. So women have a good reason to choose to avoid alcohol when pregnant.’

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