A simple test that measures eye movement may help to identify children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and ultimately lead to improved treatment for the condition, say Queen’s University researchers.
At present there are no objective diagnostic tools that can be used to distinguish between children with FASD – which affects approximately one per cent of children in Canada – and those with other developmental disorders such as Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
Researcher James Reynolds and graduate student Courtney Green, of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and the Centre for Neuroscience Studies, will present their findings next week at the annual meeting of the international Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C.
“Having a set of tests that can be used as diagnostic tools for fetal alcohol syndrome and all of the other behavioural disorders classified under the broader term fetal alcohol spectrum disorder is tremendously valuable,” says Dr. Reynolds, who is part of a $1.25-million Queen’s-led team focusing on fetal alcohol syndrome, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. “Now we can begin to identify specific deficits in these children.”
Many of the behavioural tests used to assess children with FASD are geared to white, middle-class English-speaking people, notes Ms Green. “The biggest problem [in current tests] is cultural insensitivity,” she says. “By measuring eye movement we can cut across cultural barriers and provide objectivity in identifying the disorder.”
In a pilot study involving 25 girls and boys aged eight to 12, the Queen’s team found that children with FASD have specific brain abnormalities which can be measured with eye movement testing. Defined as “birth defects resulting from a mother’s consumption of alcohol during pregnancy”, fetal alcohol syndrome is associated with hyperactivity, difficulty in learning and deficits in memory, understanding and reasoning, as well as problems dealing with stressful situations.
The next stage of the Queen’s research will be to make the eye movement test mobile and transport it to targeted areas, such as northern and rural parts of Ontario, where FASD is believed to be more prevalent. The researchers envision this as a multi-centre project, in which other participants will work from the same set of pooled data.
“There is a clear need to develop new tools that can be used to reliably and objectively measure the brain injury of FASD,” says Dr. Reynolds. “Ideally, these tools need to be mobile, inexpensive, and easy to use, for both diagnosis and the long-term evaluation of therapeutic interventions. Eye movements are ideally suited for this purpose.”
Using the new functional MRI facility at Queen’s, the team will then be able to measure differences in brain activity between children with fetal alcohol syndrome and those with other developmental disorders such as ADHD.
“Having access to this facility will have a huge impact on our research program,” Dr. Reynolds says. “It allows us to create an integrated research strategy for carrying out studies to provide functional brain imaging data that can be directly related to neuro-behavioural deficits in individual children with FASD.”
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