Despite greater awareness of the dangers of prenatal exposure to alcohol, the rates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders remain alarmingly high. This study evaluated academic achievement among children known to be prenatally exposed to maternal heavy alcohol consumption as compared to their peers without such exposure, and explored the brain regions that may underlie academic performance.
Researchers assessed two groups of children, eight to 16 years of age: 67 children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure (44 boys, 23 girls) and 61 children who were not prenatally exposed to alcohol (33 boys, 28 girls). Scores on standardized tests of academic areas such as reading, spelling, and math were analyzed. In addition, a subsample of 42 children (29 boys, 13 girls) had brain imaging, which allowed the authors to examine the relations between the cortical structure (thickness and surface area) of their brains and academic performance.
The alcohol-exposed children performed significantly worse than their peers in all academic areas, with particular weaknesses found in math performance. Brain imaging revealed several brain surface area clusters linked to math and spelling performance. The children without prenatal alcohol exposure demonstrated the expected developmental pattern of better scores associated with smaller brain surface areas, which may be related to a typical developmental process known as pruning. However, alcohol-exposed children did not show this pattern, possibly due to atypical or delayed brain development, which has been observed in other research studies. These results support previous findings of lower academic performance among children prenatally exposed to alcohol compared to their peers, which appear to be associated with differences in brain development, and highlight the need for additional attention and support for these children.
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