Science: A Clue to How Alcohol Damages Brains Alcohol wreaks havoc on the developing brain, killing cells left and right. Children who were exposed to alcohol in the womb are often developmentally disabled. Now researchers have identified two receptors of chemical messages in the brain that allow alcohol to wipe out neurons. Despite public health warnings, 20% of women who drink continue to do so while they are pregnant, according to a 1996 report from the Institute of Medicine. As a result, roughly 1 infant in every 1000 born in the United States has fetal alcohol syndrome, characterized by facial abnormalities, stunted growth, and learning and memory problems. Following up on earlier hints, neuroscientist John Olney of Washington University in St. Louis and pediatric neurologist Chrysanthy Ikonomidou, now at Humboldt University in Berlin, examined the effects of alcohol on two common receptors in the brain that work in different ways. The NMDA receptor responds to an excitatory messenger called glutamate. The GABA
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Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Humboldt University, John Olney, Institute of Medicine.