There is abundant evidence that prenatal alcohol exposure leads to a range of behavioral and cognitive impairments, categorized under the term fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). These disorders are pervasive in Western cultures and represent the most common preventable source of neurodevelopmental disabilities. The genetic and epigenetic etiology of these phenotypes, including those factors that may maintain these phenotypes throughout the lifetime of an affected individual, has become a recent topic of investigation. This review integrates recent data that has progressed our understanding FASD as a continuum of molecular events, beginning with cellular stress response and ending with a long-term "footprint" of epigenetic dysregulation across the genome. It reports on data from multiple ethanol-treatment paradigms in mouse models that identify changes in gene expression that occur with respect to neurodevelopmental timing of exposure and ethanol dose. These studies have identified patterns of genomic alteration that are dependent on the biological processes occurring at the time of ethanol exposure. This review also adds to evidence that epigenetic processes such as DNA methylation, histone modifications, and non-coding RNA regulation may underlie long-term changes to gene expression patterns. These may be initiated by ethanol-induced alterations to DNA and histone methylation, particularly in imprinted regions of the genome, affecting transcription which is further fine-tuned by altered microRNA expression. These processes are likely complex, genome-wide, and interrelated. The proposed model suggests a potential for intervention, given that epigenetic changes are malleable and may be altered by postnatal environment. This review accentuates the value of mouse models in deciphering the molecular etiology of FASD, including those processes that may provide a target for the ammelioration of this common yet entirely preventable disorder.
Keywords: DNA methylation; epigenetics; fetal alcohol spectrum disorders; gene expression; histone modifications; microRNA; mouse models; neurodevelopment.