Focus on: structural and functional brain abnormalities in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders

C Christopher Nunez, Florence Roussotte, Elizabeth R Sowell
Alcohol Research & Health: the Journal of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism 2011, 34 (1): 121-31
Children exposed to alcohol prenatally can experience significant deficits in cognitive and psychosocial functioning as well as alterations in brain structure and function related to alcohol's teratogenic effects. These impairments are present both in children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and in children with heavy in utero alcohol exposure who do not have facial dysmorphology required for the FAS diagnosis. Neuropsychological and behavioral studies have revealed deficits in most cognitive domains measured, including overall intellectual functioning, attention/working memory, executive skills, speed of processing, and academic skills in children and adolescents across the range of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). As with neuro-psychological studies, brain-imaging studies have detected differences in brain structure related to alcohol exposure in multiple brain systems and abnormalities in the white matter that connects these brain regions. Several studies have found relationships between these morphological differences and cognitive function, suggesting some clinical significance to the structural brain abnormalities. Concentrations of neurotransmitter metabolites within the brains of prenatally exposed children also appear to be altered, and functional imaging studies have identified significant differences in brain activation related to working memory, learning, and inhibitory control in children and adolescents with FASD.

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