Moderate Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and Cognitive Status of Children at Age 10


  • This work is supported by the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (AA06666, NLD, P.I.; AA013981 JAW, P.I.) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA03874, NLD, P.I.).

Reprint requests: Jennifer A. Willford, PhD, Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic, University of Pittsburgh, 3811 O'Hara Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213; Fax: 412-246-6875; E-mail:


Background: The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) on measures of intelligence have been well documented in children with fetal alcohol syndrome. However, deficits in general intellectual ability in children with low to moderate PAE are less well understood. The objective of this study was to assess the association between moderate PAE and cognitive ability in children at age 10 controlling for other prenatal and birth factors, maternal and child psychosocial factors, and environmental characteristics.

Methods: Data were collected as part of the Maternal Health Practices and Child Development Project, a prospective study of prenatal substance use with 636 mother–child pairs. Women were assessed during each trimester of pregnancy and with their children at birth; 8 and 18 months; and 3, 6, and 10 years. Each phase included an evaluation of growth, development, cognitive, and psychological functioning. At age 10, cognitive ability was assessed using the composite score and verbal, abstract/visual, quantitative, and short-term memory area scores of the Stanford–Binet Intelligence Test, fourth edition. Maternal intellectual ability, maternal prenatal and current drug use, maternal and child psychosocial characteristics, demographics, and home environment were included in the analysis.

Results: A significant relation was found between alcohol exposure during the first and second trimesters and the composite score of the Stanford–Binet for African American children at age 10. Significant relations were also found for the verbal, abstract/visual, and quantitative subscales. Additional predictors of IQ at age 10 included mother's IQ, home environment, and child's report of depression.

Conclusions: There is a significant association between PAE and cognitive ability at age 10 among African American offspring. There was no relation between PAE and scores on the Stanford–Binet scales among the Caucasian offspring.