Background: Chronic prenatal alcohol exposure causes a spectrum of deleterious effects in offspring, collectively termed fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), and deficits in executive function are prevalent in FASD. The goal of this research was to test the hypothesis that children with FASD exhibit performance deficits in tasks that assess attention, planning and spatial working memory.
Methods: Subjects (8–15 years male and female children) with a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial FAS (pFAS), or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and age- and sex-matched controls, completed four tasks selected from the Cambridge Neuropsychological Tests Automated Battery (CANTAB®).
Results: Compared with age-matched control children (n = 92), subjects with FASD (n = 89) exhibited longer reaction and decision times (effect size range; Cohen's d = .51 to .73), suggesting deficits in attention. Children with FASD demonstrated deficits in planning and spatial working memory that became more pronounced when task difficulty increased. The largest effect size in this study population (Cohen’s d = 1.1) occurred in the spatial working memory task. Only one outcome measure revealed differences across the diagnostic subgroups, although all groups were different from control.
Conclusion: This study demonstrates that deficits in multiple executive function domains, including set shifting, planning and strategy use, attention and spatial working memory, can be assessed in children with FASD using an easy to administer, brief battery of computer-based neuropsychological tasks. The tasks appear to be equally sensitive for brain injury resulting from prenatal exposure to alcohol, regardless of the presence of facial dysmorphology.