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A variety of developmental defects occur as a result of prenatal exposure to alcohol (ethanol) in utero. In humans, those defects are collectively classified as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) representing the more severe defects. FAS is defined by pre- and post-natal growth retardation, minor facial abnormalities, and deficiencies in the central nervous system (CNS). In addition to those defects, prenatal exposure to alcohol impacts cardiogenesis, the developmental stage of heart formation.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that are capable of dividing for long periods of time and can give rise to specialized cells under particular conditions. Embryonic stem cells are a particular type of stem cell derived from embryos. According to US National Institutes of Health (NIH), in humans, the term "embryo" applies to a fertilized egg from the beginning of division up to the end of the eighth week of gestation, when the embryo becomes a fetus. Between fertilization and the eighth week of gestation, the embryo undergoes multiple cell divisions.
Maternal consumption of alcohol (ethanol) during pregnancy can result in a continuum of embryonic developmental abnormalities that vary depending on the severity, duration, and frequency of exposure of ethanol during gestation. Alcohol is a teratogen, an environmental agent that impacts the normal development of an embryo or fetus. In addition to dose-related concerns, factors such as maternal genetics and metabolism and the timing of alcohol exposure during prenatal development also impact alcohol-related birth defects.