Using a novel combination of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and surface modeling techniques, researchers have devised an imaging tool that allows for the detection of subtle facial deformities characteristic of fetal alcohol syndrome—a pattern of mental and physical defects that develop in the fetus as a result of excessive alcohol consumption by the mother during pregnancy.

Fetal alcohol syndrome affects around 1 in 750 newborns in the United States. Telltale symptoms include small eyelid openings, a smooth ridge on the upper lip, and a thin upper lip border, but not all babies who are affected exhibit the same features.

In a paper published last week (August 22) in PLoS ONE, researchers led by cell biologist Kathleen Sulik from the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill described how the new imaging tool was able to capture minute facial changes in mouse fetuses that had been exposed to alcohol...

“Adverse outcomes vary considerably, and most individuals don’t exhibit the facial characteristics that currently define FAS,” Robert Lipinski, a postdoc in Sulik’s UNC lab and one of the study’s authors, said in a press release. “This study could expand the base of diagnostic criteria used by clinicians who suspect problems caused by maternal alcohol use.”

“Overall, the results of our studies show that alcohol can cause more than one pattern of birth defects, and that the type and extent of brain abnormalities—which are the most devastating manifestation of prenatal alcohol exposure—in some cases may be predicted by specific facial features,” Sulik said in the release.

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