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Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Examined

Findings by SDSU researchers will likely improve diagnosis, treatment and treatment strategies of prenatal alcohol exposed children.
Authors of the SDSU research (left to right),  Jessica O'Brien, Nicole Crocker, Sarah Mattson, Ashley Ware.
Authors of the SDSU research (left to right), Jessica O'Brien, Nicole Crocker, Sarah Mattson, Ashley Ware.
A common treatment for children with prenatal alcohol exposure may no longer be viable, thanks to new findings by San Diego State University researchers.

SDSU scientists isolated specific brain deficiencies in children exposed to alcohol prenatally — research that will likely improve diagnosis, treatment and intervention strategies.

Relationships examined

The three-year study, led by SDSU psychology professor Sarah Mattson as part of a multi-site national research initiative, examines the relationship of prenatal alcohol exposure with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder on two key functions of the brain.

Researchers are looking to see if deficits in the brain’s executive functions–multi-tasking, problem solving, learning and decision making – can predict deficits in one’s day-to-day behavior, such as self care, making food, getting dressed and making a bed.

Mattson said this research is critical for the more than 40,000 babies born each year with fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders. 

Alcohol Exposure vs. ADHD

It’s known from previous studies that in nonexposed children with ADHD, the predictive relationship between executive functioning of the brain and day-to-day behavior is already evident.

ADHD is commonly diagnosed in children with prenatal alcohol exposure.

“There are some people out there who suggest that because most children with fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders have ADHD, we should treat them the same as children with ADHD,” Mattson said. “But some of those treatments work for children with fetal alcohol exposure spectrum disorders and some of them do not.”

Predicting day-to-day behavior

After looking at a series of measures of executive functioning and a measure of day-to-day functioning, the results showed similar patterns of abilities on the two measures in the alcohol exposed group and the ADHD group. But patterns of relationships between executive functioning and adaptive functioning differed for nonexposed children with ADHD and children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

In children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, only the ‘non-verbal’ executive functions predicted one’s day-to-day behavior, in comparison to ADHD children where executive functioning predicted day-to-day behavior across the board.

The new understanding indicates that similar treatments for children with ADHD and fetal-alcohol spectrum disorder may not be effective.

 “This is very important from a treatment standpoint – we should not expect children with fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders, even those with ADHD, to always benefit from the same treatments as children with ADHD,” Mattson said.

According to the research, when treating children who have fetal-alcohol spectrum disorders, it may be best to consider the use of non-verbal strategies, such as pictures, posters and flashcards.

“Treatments need to be developed that take these specific differences into consideration,” Mattson added.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. 

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