Wayne State University

Prenatal exposure can make alcohol smell more pleasant

DETROIT – Young adults exposed to high levels of alcohol before birth found the smell of it more pleasant than a control group did, according to researchers at Wayne State University.  In the sample of 75 participants, higher levels of prenatal alcohol exposures were related to higher relative ratings of pleasantness for odors of alcohol beverages. This is the first published study to assess the influence of prenatal alcohol exposure on young adult responses to alcohol odors.

Exposure to alcohol in utero can lead to lifelong neurobehavioral and social problems, including a higher risk of early alcohol use and drinking-related problems. WSU’s findings are consistent with the idea that positive associations to the odor of alcohol are acquired prenatally and retained into young adulthood despite many years of intervening experiences. Additional research could investigate the relationships between altered responses to alcohol odors and drinking behavior.

John H. Hannigan, Ph.D., deputy director of the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute at WSU, and co-lead author Lisa M. Chiodo, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts, found that young adults with prenatal exposure to alcohol were more than twice as likely to rate alcohol odors as “pleasant” compared to those without such exposure. “Prenatal exposure may increase the likelihood of people using alcohol at younger ages and drinking more often, because the smell of alcohol is more pleasing to them,” Hannigan said. The question of how prenatal exposure changes the perception of alcohol odors remains, but a larger study could examine those mechanisms, the influence of other pre- and postnatal factors, and the young adults’ current drinking patterns.

The article, “Prenatal alcohol exposure selectively enhances young adult perceived pleasantness of alcohol odors,” was published in the Jan. 19 issue of Physiology & Behavior. The study was funded in part to Virginia Delaney-Black of Wayne State, Chiodo and Hannigan, by the National Institutes of Health, award numbers R01-DA08524 and R01-DA016373.

The article can be found at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2015.01.019


The Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development promotes and improves the development, health and well-being of infants, children, youth and their families through research, education and outreach. The institute is part of Wayne State University, a premier urban research institution offering more than 370 academic programs through 13 schools and colleges to nearly 28,000 students.