The effects of alcohol on fetal development

Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2011 Mar;93(1):3-11. doi: 10.1002/bdrc.20200.


Prenatal exposure to alcohol has profound effects on many aspects of fetal development. Although alterations of somatic growth and specific minor malformations of facial structure are most characteristic, the effects of alcohol on brain development are most significant in that they lead to substantial problems with neurobehavioral development. Since the initial recognition of the fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a number of important observations have been made from studies involving both humans and animals. Of particular importance, a number of maternal risk factors have been identified, which may well be of relevance relative to the development of strategies for prevention of the FAS as well as intervention for those who have been affected. These include maternal age >30 years, ethnic group, lower socioeconomic status, having had a previously affected child, maternal under-nutrition, and genetic background. The purpose of this review is to discuss these issues as well as to set forth a number of questions that have not adequately been addressed relative to alcohol's effect on fetal development. Of particular importance is the critical need to identify the full spectrum of structural defects associated with the prenatal effects of alcohol as well as to establish a neurobehavioral phenotype. Appreciation of both of these issues is necessary to understand the full impact of alcohol on fetal development.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / abnormalities
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Face / abnormalities
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / diagnosis
  • Fetal Development*
  • Humans
  • Models, Animal
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications
  • Prenatal Care
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Risk Factors


  • Ethanol