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Research: Foetus absorbs mother's alcohol, nicotine intake in just two hours

Toxic substances such as nicotine and alcohol from alcoholic drinks can travel quickly through an expectant mother's placenta to her unborn baby, says a researcher from the University of Eastern Finland. The research showed that the placenta does not shield the foetus, but revealed that aocohol and nicotine can travel from mother to child in less than two hours.

Even the smallest amount of alcohol or nicotine can be harmful to an unborn child's development. Image: Katja Halinen / Yle

Thesis research at the University of Eastern Finland has revealed that ethanol and nicotine can easily traverse the placenta from a mother to her unborn baby. The study has been the first to show that ethanol ingested in alcoholic beverages prevents placental villi from correctly absorbing proteins.

The research used a methodology in which placental function was maintained and observed using artificial blood flow. The methodology allowed researchers to gain new insights into the impact of smoking and alcohol use during pregnancy.

"The research showed that in as little as two hours, nicotine and ethanol concentrations are exactly the same in the foetus and the mother. The surprising revelation for expectant mothers is that the placenta does not shield the unborn child," explained pharmacist and researcher Jenni Repo of the University of Eastern Finland.

Big impact from even the smallest changes

Tests conducted on placental cancer cells revealed that a combination of ethanol and nicotine is more toxic than either substance taken separately. The scientists said that there are multiple mechanisms contributing to the enhanced toxicity.

Part of the research focused on creating cultures of placental structures known as villi or finger-like fronds projecting from the placenta to increase the contact area with maternal blood. For the first time, the study revealed that ethanol causes damage to the specialised cells.

"Even the smallest impairment changes the normal functioning of the cells. Changes may have major impacts on placental tissue," Repo expanded.

Smoking and drinking common during pregnancy

The normal functioning of the placenta is critical for the growth and development of an unborn child. Many pregnant women use alcohol and cigarettes or other nicotine products although they are harmful to the foetus and possibly the placenta.

According to current estimates, roughly 10 percent of pregnant women use alcohol while they are expecting and between eight and 15 percent smoke.

"Even a small drink during a critical phase of development could have major consequences, and it’s not possible to set any limits for safe consumption. So it’s best to completely avoid ethanol and nicotine products during pregnancy," Repo said.

Pharmacist Jenni Repo defended her thesis, "The role of the placenta in fetal toxicity of chemicals" at the University of Eastern Finland’s Health Sciences Faculty on Friday.