Impact of low-level prenatal alcohol exposure and maternal stress on autonomic regulation

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BACKGROUND: Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) impacts the neurodevelopment of the fetus, including the infant's ability to self-regulate. Heart rate variability (HRV), that is, the beat-to-beat variability in heart rate, is a non-invasive measurement that can indicate autonomic nervous system (ANS) function/dysfunction.

METHODS: The study consisted of a subset of our ENRICH-2 cohort: 80 participants (32 PAE and 48 Controls) who had completed three visits during pregnancy. The participants completed a comprehensive assessment of PAE and other substances throughout pregnancy and assessments for stress, anxiety, and depression in the third trimester. At 24 h of age, infant HRV was assessed in the hospital during the clinically indicated heel lance; 3- to 5-min HRV epochs were obtained during baseline, heel lancing, and recovery episodes.

RESULTS: Parameters of HRV differed in infants with PAE compared to Controls during the recovery phase of the heel lance (respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA) and high-frequency (HF), p < 0.05). Increased maternal stress was also strongly associated with abnormalities in RSA, HF, and low-frequency / high-frequency (LF/HF, p's < 0.05).

CONCLUSIONS: Alterations in ANS regulation associated with PAE and maternal stress may reflect abnormal development of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and have long term implications for infant responsiveness and self-regulation.

IMPACT: Previous studies have focused on effects of moderate to heavy prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) on autonomic dysregulation, but little is known about the effects of lower levels of PAE on infant self-regulation and heart rate variability (HRV). Prenatal stress is another risk factor for autonomic dysregulation. Mild PAE impacts infant self-regulation, which can be assessed using HRV. However, the effect of prenatal stress is stronger than that of mild PAE or other mental health variables on autonomic dysregulation.


Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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Pediatric research