It is well established that maternal alcohol consumption is a risk factor of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). However, new research reveals that paternal drinking may be a cause of FAS, as well.

The study, published in Animal Cells and Systems, researchers exposed one group of male mice to varying concentrations of alcohol and exposed one control group to saline. After being exposed to alcohol or saline, the mice were mated and their offspring studied. The findings revealed evidence that paternal alcohol consumption can directly affect fetal development.

In children, FAS causes significant problems such as retarded intellect, stunted growth and nervous system abnormalities, social problems and isolation, according to the press release announcing the findings.

"Of all the substances of abuse (including cocaine, heroin and marijuana), alcohol produces by far the most serious neurobehavioral effects in the fetus," reads the Institute of Medicine's report to Congress in 1996. About 40,000 babies are born with FAS each year, costing the nation up to $6 billion annually in institutional and medical costs.

In the study, a number of fetuses fathered by males exposed to alcohol suffered abnormal organ development or brain development. The fetuses fathered by the males exposed to saline had healthy development.

These results have led the authors to believe that alcohol consumption affects genes in sperm that are responsible for normal fetal development.

Previously, fathers' drinking habits showed no repercussions in their unborn children. This research provides the first definitive evidence that pre-conception drinking habits by men can cause significant fetal abnormities in their children.

"However, the mechanisms of paternal alcohol exposure causing certain transgenerational toxicities remain to be defined," concluded the study.