Fetal Alcohol Exposure Linked to Altered Cognitive Processing

Laurie Barclay, MD

October 19, 2010

October 19, 2010 — Fetal alcohol exposure from maternal binge drinking is associated with altered cognitive processing in the offspring, according to the results of a study reported online October 19 in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"Although an extensive literature has documented a broad range of cognitive performance deficits in children with prenatal alcohol exposure, little is known about how the neurophysiological processes underlying these deficits may be affected," write Matthew J. Burden, from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan, and colleagues. "Event-related potentials (ERPs), which reflect task-specific changes in brain electrical activity, provide a method for examining multiple constituents of cognitive processing at the neural level."

The investigators recorded ERPs in 217 children from Inuit communities in Arctic Quebec during a Go/No-go response inhibition task and a continuous recognition memory task. Mean age was 11.3 years. Based on whether the mother reported binge drinking during pregnancy, children were classified as either alcohol-exposed or control.

Accuracy and reaction time on the tasks were similar in both groups. When responses were compared across conditions, both tasks elicited the expected effects on ERPs, but P2 latencies (a series of voltage fluctuations) were slower on Go/No-go in the alcohol exposed group, suggesting an altered neurophysiologic response associated with initial visual processing of the stimuli. The alcohol exposed group had lower FN400 amplitude to New items, known as the familiarity effect, on the memory task. FN400 is elicited in visual memory paradigms, which also appears to play a general role in cognitive control and decision-making.

Amplitude for the late positive component was also reduced, possibly reflecting impairment in memory retrieval.

"[Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD)] is associated with learning problems in children, including having difficulties in response inhibition and memory," said senior author Joseph L. Jacobson, PhD, also from Wayne State, in a news release. "...Prenatal alcohol exposure affects many different aspects of brain development, including brain size, neuronal development, and development of white matter tracts....Additional understanding of the nature of these problems has the potential to help develop more effective remediation programs for children with fetal alcohol-related learning problems."

Limitations of this study include reliance on retrospective maternal report for determination of prenatal alcohol exposure, lack of data on quantity of alcohol ingested, and small sample size.

"The study demonstrates that there are alterations in this group of children on their processing of information related to [cognitive] functions," said Claire Coles, a professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science and Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. "Hopefully, such information can be used to develop more effective teaching methods for children affected by prenatal exposure."

The National Institutes of Health (NIH)/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; Northern Contaminants Program, Indian and Northern Affairs, Canada; NIH/National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism National Research Service Award; and the Joseph Young, Sr, Fund from the State of Michigan supported this study. The study authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. Published online October 19, 2010.

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