There are many exposures, or teratogens, that can harm a human baby during its embryonic state. During this period of development, beginning at week 5 of pregnancy, critical structures are beginning to develop. Stem cells undergo the process of differentiation, taking on the properties and functions of the specific organs they are forming (Minnesota Department of Health). For example, during the embryonic period, the baby’s brain, spinal cord, heart gastrointestinal tract are starting to develop. Alcohol, or ethanol, is a common teratogen that interfere with these processes, and can cause lasting damage to the unborn child.
When an embryo is exposed to alcohol during the third week of development, it can interfere with the development of the precursor cells that give rise to the heart (by the fourth week of development, the embryonic heart is already beating). When an embryo exposed to alcohol during this time, it interferes with retinol (vitamin A) levels, leading to interfere with the ability of the cardiac progenitor cells to multiply, migrate, and differentiate (O’Neil). Defects that result from those impediments can include atrial and ventricular abnormalities, issues with valve formation, and a potential increase in the risk of heart disease later in adulthood.
Brain development can also be damaged by alcohol during the embryonic period. During the sixth and seventh week of pregnancy, the formation of the corpus callosum begins to occur. This is the structure responsible for the communication between the right and left hemispheres of the brain. Exposure to alcohol during this critical stage of brain development can cause it to not develop correctly, causing either partial or complete agenesis (O’Neil).
Exposure of alcohol during all stages of fetal development also greatly increases the risk of a delivery complications, including miscarriage, low birth weight and premature birth. A recent study found that alcohol exposure within the first three months of pregnancy, during the embryonic stage, can in fact increase the risk for a premature birth (Smith, 2009).