It is well known that the children of alcoholics are more likely to develop difficulties in thinking, learning and memory. Few studies, however, have examined the link between maternal drinking during pregnancy and a child's risk for alcoholism.

According to a new study, not only is there such a link, but it may occur even before birth.

Rosa Alati, Ph.D., from The University of Queensland, Herston, Australia, and colleagues explored whether maternal exposure to alcohol during pregnancy increased a child's risk of developing alcohol disorders in 2,138 participants who were followed from birth to age 21. A group of 7,223 mothers was originally interviewed at their first prenatal physician visit, between 1981 and 1984. The mothers and children were assessed at birth and again 6 months, 5 years, 14 years and 21 years later. Starting during early pregnanacy, mothers were asked periodically how often they drank alcohol and the number of drinks consumed on any one occasion.

It turned out that those whose mothers drank more than three glasses of alcohol once or more during early pregnancy were 2.47 times more likely to develop alcoholism before age 18 and 2.04 times more likely to develop alcoholism between ages 18 and 21. Drinking during mddle and late pregnancy also increased risk. These associations remained after the researchers corrected for other biological and environmental factors that can contribute to the risk of developing alcohol disorders.

Reporting their findings in the September 2006 issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, the authors speculate that interactions between genetic factors and exposure to alcohol before birth may affect the development of the nervous system in ways that predispose children and adults to alcohol problems.

"Our findings support a biological contribution to the origin of alcohol disorders and suggest that greater attention should be given to the role of the programming effect of in utero alcohol exposure to the development of alcohol disorders in adulthood."