• Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders;
  • Prenatal Alcohol Exposure;
  • Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy;
  • N-Acetylaspartate;
  • Choline;
  • Glutamate


Prenatal alcohol exposure has been linked to impairment in cerebellar structure and function, including eyeblink conditioning. The deep cerebellar nuclei, which play a critical role in cerebellar-mediated learning, receive extensive inputs from brain stem and cerebellar cortex and provide the point of origin for most of the output fibers to other regions of the brain. We used in vivo 1H magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to examine effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on neurochemistry in this important cerebellar region.


MRS data from the deep cerebellar nuclei were acquired from 37 children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure and 17 non- or minimally exposed controls from the Cape Coloured (mixed ancestry) community in Cape Town, South Africa.


Increased maternal alcohol consumption around time of conception was associated with lower N-Acetylaspartate (NAA) levels in the deep nuclei (= −0.33, < 0.05). Higher levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy were related to lower levels of the choline-containing metabolites (= −0.37, < 0.01), glycerophosphocholine plus phosphocholine (Cho). Alcohol consumption levels both at conception (= 0.35, p < 0.01) and during pregnancy (= 0.38, < 0.01) were related to higher levels of glutamate plus glutamine (Glx). All these effects continued to be significant after controlling for potential confounders.


The lower NAA levels seen in relation to prenatal alcohol exposure may reflect impaired neuronal integrity in the deep cerebellar nuclei. Our finding of lower Cho points to disrupted Cho metabolism of membrane phospholipids, reflecting altered neuropil development with potentially reduced content of dendrites and synapses. The alcohol-related alterations in Glx may suggest a disruption of the glutamate–glutamine cycling involved in glutamatergic excitatory neurotransmission.