The dangers associated with drinking alcohol and smoking during pregnancy are well known and reported widely. Now, joint research from King’s College London and the University of Bristol has shown that exposure to smoke and alcohol can also lead to aggression and other behavioural problems in children.

The findings show that during foetal development, exposure to smoke and alcohol may lead to chemical modifications of the foetal DNA. Genes particularly affected are those related to addiction and aggression, which can result in social problems during adolescence – termed Conduct Disorder (CD). This is a serious behavioural and emotional disorder where children and teenagers demonstrate aggressive behaviour towards people or animals. Typical traits include bullying, intimidation, initiating fights and being cruel to animals.

The study, published in Development & Psychopathology, used data to examine associations between DNA modification at birth and conduct problems in children aged 4–13 years of old. The researchers also measured the influence of environmental factors previously linked to early onset of CD, including maternal diet, smoking, alcohol use and exposure to stress.

One of the genes which showed the most significant changes is known to play a role in reward, addiction and pain perception. This backs up previous research which suggests that conduct problems are often accompanied by substance abuse. There is also evidence indicating that some people who engage in antisocial lifestyles show higher pain tolerance.

‘We know that children with early-onset conduct problems are much more likely to engage in antisocial behaviour as adults, so this is clearly a very important group to look at from a societal point of view. There is good evidence that exposure to maternal smoking and alcohol is associated with developmental problems in children, yet we don’t know how increased risk for conduct problems occurs,” said Edward Barker from King’s College London.

Parents with an addiction to smoking and alcohol are advised that they could be putting the development and future behaviour of their kids at risk.

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