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Keywords:

  • executive function;
  • fetal alcohol syndrome;
  • saccadic eye movements

Abstract

Prenatal exposure to alcohol can result in a spectrum of adverse developmental outcomes, collectively termed fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). This study evaluated deficits in sensory, motor and cognitive processing in children with FASD that can be identified using eye movement testing. Our study group was composed of 89 children aged 8–15 years with a diagnosis within the FASD spectrum [i.e. fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial fetal alcohol syndrome (pFAS), and alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND)], and 92 controls. Subjects looked either towards (prosaccade) or away from (antisaccade) a peripheral target that appeared on a computer monitor, and eye movements were recorded with a mobile, video-based eye tracker. We hypothesized that: (i) differences in the magnitude of deficits in eye movement control exist across the three diagnostic subgroups; and (ii) children with FASD display a developmental delay in oculomotor control. Children with FASD had increased saccadic reaction times (SRTs), increased intra-subject variability in SRTs, and increased direction errors in both the prosaccade and antisaccade tasks. Although development was associated with improvements across tasks, children with FASD failed to achieve age-matched control levels of performance at any of the ages tested. Moreover, children with ARND had faster SRTs and made fewer direction errors in the antisaccade task than children with pFAS or FAS, although all subgroups were different from controls. Our results demonstrate that eye tracking can be used as an objective measure of brain injury in FASD, revealing behavioral deficits in all three diagnostic subgroups independent of facial dysmorphology.