Monica Lewin, New York University – Blocking the Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

On this Student Spotlight: Is there help on the way for those affected by fetal alcohol syndrome?

Monica Lewin, PhD candidate in Neuroscience at New York University, examines how a drug to treat bipolar disease could have a positive side effect.

​​Monica Lewin is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at New York University. Her research examines the relationship between sleep and psychiatric disorders across the lifespan. Prior to her PhD training in the labs of Dr. Donald Wilson and Dr. Regina Sullivan at NYU, Monica graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Blocking the Effects of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

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Lithium is a drug that has long been used as a mood stabilizer in psychiatric patients.  But our lab uses it to explore potential treatments for fetal alcohol syndrome.  Fetal Alcohol Syndrome is a spectrum disorder that is associated with symptoms like learning and memory deficits, hyperactivity and sleep problems.  

When alcohol reaches the developing brain it can kill neurons or cause them to develop abnormally.  One class of cells especially affected are called inhibitory neurons which have been implicated in some of the same functions that have impaired in people with fetal alcohol syndrome like sleep and memory processing.

We’re especially interested in the link between sleep disruption and other fetal alcohol syndrome outcomes because sleep is so important to maintain normal memory function, emotional regulation and attention.

We’ve previously found that the lifelong disruption of sleep can contribute to the memory and emotional outcomes associated with fetal alcohol syndrome. 

We know that if developing mice are exposed to alcohol in what is equivalent to human third trimester they will grow up to be hyperactive, their memory performance will be impaired and they will sleep less and more restlessly.  When we look at their brains we see that they have fewer of those inhibitory neurons.  However, when we gave them a dose of lithium right as the alcohol exposure occurs we were able to block all these effects and the mice grew up to have normal sleep, memory and activity levels.

This lithium co-treatment also prevented the alcohol induced loss of inhibitory neurons.  This study demonstrated that several effects of fetal alcohol syndrome could be prevented by a single treatment aimed at a common mechanism.

However, we want to emphasize that lithium itself might cause birth defects and is not safe enough to give to pregnant mothers.  Thus, future research is needed to discover a safer treatment that might work in a similar way.

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