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Infants Exposed to Alcohol in the Womb have Altered Brain Function

Update Date: Aug 04, 2014 12:01 PM EDT

During pregnancy, women have to be extra careful about what they put into their bodies. Substances, such as alcohol and drugs, can negatively impact the development of the fetus. In a new study, the first of its kind, researchers from the Saban Research Institute of Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, CA, examined the brain function of infants born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). They found that children that were exposed to alcohol in the womb exhibited weaker brain activation when they were performing certain cognitive tasks.

"Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to observe brain activity during mental tasks in children with FASD, but we are the first to utilize these techniques to look at brain activation over time," stated Prapti Gautam, PhD according to the press release. "We wanted to see if the differences in brain activation between children with FASD and their healthy peers were static, or if they changed as children got older."

For this study, the researchers observed two groups of children over the time span of two years. The first group consisted of children with FASD, which includes a wide array of symptoms tied to in utero alcohol exposure, such as cognitive impairment, attention difficulties, intelligence deficits and central nervous system abnormalities. The second group was made up of children without FASD.

The researchers used fMRIs to analyze the children's brain activation during certain cognitive tasks, such as visuo-spatial attention and working memory. The researchers discovered that even though children from both groups performed similarly on the mental tasks, the fMRIs revealed that brain activation was significantly different.

"We found that there were significant differences in development brain activation over time between the two groups, even though they did not differ in task performance," stated Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, director of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory at The Saban Research Institute and senior author on the manuscript. "While the healthy control group showed an increase in signal intensity over time, the children with FASD showed a decrease in brain activation during visuo-spatial attention, especially in the frontal, temporal and parietal brain regions."

The study was published in the journal, Cerebral Cortex.

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