Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Alters Fetal Iron Distribution and Elevates Hepatic Hepcidin in a Rat Model of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

J Nutr. 2016 Jun;146(6):1180-8. doi: 10.3945/jn.115.227983. Epub 2016 May 4.


Background: Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) causes neurodevelopmental disabilities, and gestational iron deficiency (ID) selectively worsens learning and neuroanatomical and growth impairments in PAE. It is unknown why ID worsens outcomes in alcohol-exposed offspring.

Objective: We hypothesized that PAE alters maternal-fetal iron distribution or its regulation.

Methods: Nulliparous, 10-wk-old, Long-Evans rats were mated and then fed iron-sufficient (100 mg Fe/kg) or iron-deficient (≤4 mg Fe/kg) diets. On gestational days 13.5-19.5, dams received either 5.0 g ethanol/kg body weight (PAE) or isocaloric maltodextrin by oral gavage. On gestational day 20.5, maternal and fetal clinical blood counts, tissue mineral and iron transport protein concentrations, and hepatic hepcidin mRNA expression were determined.

Results: In fetal brain and liver (P < 0.001) and in maternal liver (P < 0.005), ID decreased iron (total and nonheme) and ferritin content by nearly 200%. PAE reduced fetal bodyweight (P < 0.001) and interacted with ID (P < 0.001) to reduce it by an additional 20%. Independent of maternal iron status, PAE increased fetal liver iron (30-60%, P < 0.001) and decreased brain iron content (total and nonheme, 15-20%, P ≤ 0.050). ID-PAE brains had lower ferritin, transferrin, and transferrin receptor content (P ≤ 0.002) than ID-maltodextrin brains. PAE reduced fetal hematocrit, hemoglobin, and red blood cell numbers (P < 0.003) independently of iron status. Unexpectedly, and also independent of iron status, PAE increased maternal and fetal hepatic hepcidin mRNA expression >300% (P < 0.001).

Conclusions: PAE altered fetal iron distribution independent of maternal iron status in rats. The elevated iron content of fetal liver suggests that PAE may have limited iron availability for fetal erythropoiesis and brain development. Altered fetal iron distribution may partly explain why maternal ID substantially worsens growth and behavioral outcomes in PAE.

Keywords: fetal alcohol spectrum disorders; hepcidin; iron deficiency; neurodevelopment; pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Anemia, Iron-Deficiency / blood
  • Animals
  • Body Weight
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Diet
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Female
  • Ferritins / genetics
  • Ferritins / metabolism
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / blood*
  • Hematocrit
  • Hemoglobins / metabolism
  • Hepcidins / genetics
  • Hepcidins / metabolism*
  • Iron / administration & dosage
  • Iron / blood*
  • Iron / deficiency*
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange
  • Pregnancy
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Receptors, Transferrin / metabolism
  • Transferrin / metabolism


  • Hemoglobins
  • Hepcidins
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Transferrin
  • Transferrin
  • Ferritins
  • Iron