Neuroanatomical and Neurophysiological Mechanisms Involved in Central Nervous System Dysfunctions Induced by Prenatal Alcohol Exposure


  • Presented at the 1996 Borchard Foundation Symposium on the Behavioral Effects in Children following Prenatal Alcohol Exposure, Missillac, France, July 28–30, 1996.

  • This work was supported by CICYT (SAF 94-0065; SAF 96-0185), Generalitat Valenciana (GV-D-VS 20126-96), and Fund. R. Areces. Spain.

Reprint requests: Consuelo Guerri, Ph.D., Instituto de Investigaciones Citológicas, Amadeo de Saboya, 4, 46010 Valencia, Spain.


One of the most severe consequences of maternal ethanol consumption is the damage to the developing central nervous system, which is manifested by long-term cognitive and behavioral deficits in the offspring. Prenatal exposure to ethanol affects many crucial neurochemical and cellular components of the developing brain. Ethanol interferes with all of the stages of brain development, and the severity of the damage depends on the amount of ethanol intake and level of exposure. Experimental observations also indicate that the toxic effects of ethanol are not uniform: some brain regions are more affected than others and, even within a given region, some cell populations are more vulnerable than others. The neocortex, the hippocampus, and the cerebellum are the regions in which the neurotoxic effects of ethanol have been associated with the behavioral deficits. At the cellular level, ethanol disrupts basic developmental processes, including interference with division and proliferation, cell growth, and differentiation and the migration of maturing cells. Alterations in astroglia development and in neuronalglial interactions may also influence the development of the nervous system. An impairment of several neurotransmitter systems and/or their receptors, as well as changes in the endocrine environment during brain development, are also important factors involved in the behavioral dysfunctions observed after prenatal ethanol exposure. Finally, some molecular mechanisms of ethanol-induced behavioral dysfunctions will be discussed.