Vol. 12, No. 2, 2006 Page 3


Nicotinamide, a form of vitamin B3, protects against alcohol damage in unborn rats and may help to prevent symptoms of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) if administered soon after alcohol exposure, a new study reports. The researchers caution, however, that their results are preliminary and that efforts to prevent FAS must focus on discouraging pregnant women from drinking.

Alessandro Ieraci and Daniel Herrera injected seven-day- old mice (whose developmental level resembles that of human fetuses during the third trimester of pregnancy) with amounts of ethanol sufficient to create blood ethanol levels comparable to those generated by a session of binge drinking by a human mother. The researchers found that the alcohol caused apoptosis (a form of cell death) by activating a cell-killing enzyme called caspase-3. This resulted in damage to the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in cognition; to the hippocampus, which plays a key role in learning and memory; and to the thalamus, a relay station that sends messages from the outside world to various brain regions.

When the researchers gave the mice nicotinamide after alcohol exposure, the nutrient significantly reduced damage to these brain regions. The strongest protective effect occurred when the mice received nicotinamide within two hours after alcohol exposure, but the nutrient had beneficial effects even when given eight hours after alcohol exposure.

Studying the behavior of alcohol-exposed mice, the researchers found that those that did not receive nicotinamide exhibited hyperactivity, a reduced sense of fear, and impairments in learning and memory—all abnormalities consistent with alcohol-induced damage. Nicotinamide-treated mice, however, showed none of these abnormalities.

Nicotinamide has antioxidant properties and currently is drawing interest due to its role as a neuroprotective agent. It is also being used as a treatment for type 1 diabetes and an autoimmune skin disorder called bullous pemphigoid. The researchers say, "Although there are other studies showing a possible protective effect of antioxidants in preventing ethanol-induced apoptotic neuronal death, to our knowledge this is the first treatment that has been shown to work at the molecular, cellular, and behavioral levels."

Experts stress that the only good method for preventing FAS is for mothers to avoid alcohol, and especially binge drinking, during pregnancy. However, despite warnings, one in twelve pregnant women admits to drinking during pregnancy, and one in thirty admits to binge drinking. Thus, the researchers note, nicotinamide treatment could prove valuable in preventing FAS in children of mothers who are unable or unwilling to discontinue drinking during pregnancy.

FAS affects about one in every thousand children in the United States, with a milder form, Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) affecting many more. FAS and FAE can cause severe problems including learning disabilities or mental retardation, hyperactivity, low impulse control, and sexually inappropriate or antisocial behavior, and FAE in particular is a major risk factor for delinquency and criminality.


"Nicotinamide protects against ethanol-induced apoptotic neurodegeneration in the developing mouse brain," Alessandro Ieraci and Daniel Herrera, PLoS [Public Library of Science] Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 4, April 2006 (online). Address: either author at the Department of Psychiatry, Weill Medical College of Cornell University, 525 E. 68th Street, New York, NY 10021.


Nicotinamide: A way to prevent Fetal Alcohol Syndrome?," commentary, PLoS Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 4, April 2006.

Return to:
[Author Directory] [Front Page] [Issue Index] [Subject Index] [Title Index]