Since 1989, labels on beer and other alcoholic beverages have warned pregnant women of risks to the fetus posed by drinking. Research suggests that men who are contemplating fatherhood ought to precede their partners into sobriety.
In a series of experiments by Theodore Cicero, Ph.D., professor of neuropharmacology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, young rats got high doses of alcohol early in their lives. Then they were put on an alcohol-free regimen for two to three weeks and bred with females. The rat mothers had modestly smaller litters, but the birth weights of the offspring were normal. The early binging by male rats at first seemed to have no discernable effect on their babies' physical well being.
But when Cicero looked into how these young rats developed, he found "subtle differences" compared with alcohol-free rats. "Male alcohol-sired offspring had significantly lower levels of testosterone," Cicero says. They did badly on several tests requiring them to learn to navigate mazes. And females born of the once-inebriated animals had abnormal levels of stress hormones. The results, Cicero says, are "highly consistent" with observations of human kids with alcoholic fathers. In general, the children are "not grossly malformed or impaired, but have some pronounced selective intellectual and functional deficits." The news in his work is that a man's early exposure to alcohol may later affect his children, even if he quit drinking before conception.
No one knows exactly what significance the rat research has for human fathers. "Such studies are like sentinels," says Ernest Abel, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Wayne State University. "They give you a suggestion that, at the human level, something needs to be looked at, and we should not ignore it. But these are not definitive in any way." Taken all together, though, this and other alcohol studies support some common sense: Think twice before you belly up to the bar and order a double while trying to conceive.
We can't ensure that our children will inherit our best personality traits, hair color, or smile. But men can probably do a lot, long before they even become fathers, to make sure their kids aren't put at risk by their own youthful excesses.
Gurney Williams III writes and lectures frequently on health and science issues.