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Neuroimaging studies have indicated that prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with alterations in the structure of specific brain regions in children. However, the temporal and regional specificity of such changes and their behavioural consequences are less known. Here we explore the integrity of regional white matter microstructure in infants with in utero exposure to alcohol, shortly after birth.
Twenty-eight alcohol-exposed and 28 healthy unexposed infants were imaged using diffusion tensor imaging sequences to evaluate white matter integrity using validated tract-based spatial statistics analysis methods. Second, diffusion values were extracted for group comparisons by regions of interest. Differences in fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), axial diffusivity (AD) and radial diffusivity were compared between groups and associations with measures from the Dubowitz neonatal neurobehavioural assessment were examined.
Lower AD values (p<0.05) were observed in alcohol-exposed infants in the right superior longitudinal fasciculus compared with non-exposed infants. Altered FA and MD values in alcohol-exposed neonates in the right inferior cerebellar were associated with abnormal neonatal neurobehaviour.
These exploratory data suggest that prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with reduced white matter microstructural integrity even early in the neonatal period. The association with clinical measures reinforces the likely clinical significance of this finding. The location of the findings is remarkably consistent with previously reported studies of white matter structural deficits in older children with a diagnosis of foetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
This paper reviews the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) literature on the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing human brain.
A literature search was conducted through the following databases: PubMed, PsycINFO and Google Scholar. Combinations of the following search terms and keywords were used to identify relevant studies: ‘alcohol’, ‘fetal alcohol spectrum disorders’, ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’, ‘FAS’, ‘FASD’, ‘MRI’, ‘DTI’, ‘MRS’, ‘neuroimaging’, ‘children’ and ‘infants’.
A total of 64 relevant articles were identified across all modalities. Overall, studies reported smaller total brain volume as well as smaller volume of both the white and grey matter in specific cortical regions. The most consistently reported structural MRI findings were alterations in the shape and volume of the corpus callosum, as well as smaller volume in the basal ganglia and hippocampi. The most consistent finding from diffusion tensor imaging studies was lower fractional anisotropy in the corpus callosum. Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies are few to date, but showed altered neurometabolic profiles in the frontal and parietal cortex, thalamus and dentate nuclei. Resting-state functional MRI studies reported reduced functional connectivity between cortical and deep grey matter structures.
There is a critical gap in the literature of MRI studies in alcohol-exposed children under 5 years of age across all MRI modalities. The dynamic nature of brain maturation and appreciation of the effects of alcohol exposure on the developing trajectory of the structural and functional network argue for the prioritisation of studies that include a longitudinal approach to understanding this spectrum of effects and potential therapeutic time points.