Scientists in the US have shown that apart from delaying a developing baby's growth, foetal alcohol exposure can also give a baby a lifelong taste for the stuff.
Writing in this week's PNAS, State University of New York researchers Steven Youngentob and John Glendinning exposed pregnant rats to alcohol and then followed up the behaviour of their offspring. They found that, compared with control animals, once they reached adolescence the alcohol-exposed animals would drink significantly more alcohol.
This, say the researchers, appears to be due to the rats becoming far more tolerant of bitter-tasting foods and drinks, including alcohol and quinine (which shares the same flavour profile as alcohol).
Taste-tests on the animals showed that they had less aversion for bitter substances compared with controls. In effect, foetal exposure had given them a taste for alcohol.
This is probably a manifestation of normal developmental mechanisms whereby maternal tastes are transferred to offspring. But in the wider context it provides a framework through which maternal patterns of drug use may also be transferred to offspring. For instance many drugs have "chemosensory" components - such as the smell of tobacco smoke, or even the taste of coffee - and this could rub off on the foetus by quite literally giving it a taste for the agent before its even been born...