DETROIT – Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are one of the most common causes of birth defects worldwide and are particularly prevalent in some South African communities. Heavy drinking during pregnancy is a major public health issue, particularly in the wine-growing areas of the Western Cape.

FASDs have long-term, significant effects on neurocognitive and behavioral development, including problems with attention, learning, memory and social skills. They can also cause heart defects, facial dysmorphic features, poor growth, and decreased muscle tone and coordination.

A team of researchers led by Sandra W. Jacobson and Joseph L. Jacobson, professors of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences in Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, received a $413,440 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health to conduct a new study designed to improve the diagnosis of FASDs.

Improved diagnosis can lead to the development of better-targeted treatments for specific deficits found in children with these disorders.

According to Sandra Jacobson, infants as young as 5 months of age can look at a display of stimuli that involve simple numbers and mentally manipulate them. However, alcohol-exposed infants do not show the same ability to process this numerical information when shown the same stimuli.

“Infants exposed to heavy prenatal alcohol exposure do not exhibit the same response as non-exposed infants,” said Jacobson. “In the newly funded study, we will use event-related potentials that measure brain waves to examine the time course and specific components of information processing in alcohol-exposed and non-exposed infants. We then can specify which components of number processing are affected by fetal alcohol exposure.”

The study will examine whether magnitude comparison, which is the ability to detect larger or smaller quantities, and/or error monitoring, which is an early precursor of executive function, are affected when the exposed infants perform a simple numerical discrimination task. The team’s earlier research shows that alcohol-exposed infants do not perform well on this test. The ERP version of this test will help determine which aspects of numerical processing are likely impaired by the alcohol exposure.

This type of research on these two early developing potential neurocognitive biobehavioral markers could improve understanding of what is impaired by studying specific aspects of central nervous system function that can be linked biologically to fetal alcohol exposure. This, in turn, can provide important information about the pathophysiology of FASDs and contribute to the development of improved treatments for the specific deficits of this disorder.

The research “is addressing a critical research area that currently lacks specific diagnostic criteria and an understanding of the neural structures that underlie specific cognitive deficits due to repeated fetal alcohol exposure,” said Hilary Ratner, vice president for research at Wayne State University.  “She is a leader in the field of fetal alcohol research and this is another example of the high impact research Wayne State University faculty are engaged in.”

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