Background: Although a large body of literature exists on cognitive functioning in alcohol-exposed children, it is unclear if there is a signature neuropsychological profile in children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). This study assesses cognitive functioning in children with FASD from several American Indian reservations in the Northern Plains States, and it applies a hierarchical model of simple versus complex information processing to further examine cognitive function. We hypothesized that complex tests would discriminate between children with FASD and culturally similar controls, while children with FASD would perform similar to controls on relatively simple tests.
Methods: Our sample includes 32 control children and 24 children with a form of FASD [fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) = 10, partial fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS) = 14]. The test battery measures general cognitive ability, verbal fluency, executive functioning, memory, and fine-motor skills.
Results: Many of the neuropsychological tests produced results consistent with a hierarchical model of simple versus complex processing. The complexity of the tests was determined “a priori” based on the number of cognitive processes involved in them. Multidimensional scaling was used to statistically analyze the accuracy of classifying the neurocognitive tests into a simple versus complex dichotomy. Hierarchical logistic regression models were then used to define the contribution made by complex versus simple tests in predicting the significant differences between children with FASD and controls. Complex test items discriminated better than simple test items. The tests that conformed well to the model were the Verbal Fluency, Progressive Planning Test (PPT), the Lhermitte memory tasks, and the Grooved Pegboard Test (GPT). The FASD-grouped children, when compared with controls, demonstrated impaired performance on letter fluency, while their performance was similar on category fluency. On the more complex PPT trials (problems 5 to 8), as well as the Lhermitte logical tasks, the FASD group performed the worst.
Conclusions: The differential performance between children with FASD and controls was evident across various neuropsychological measures. The children with FASD performed significantly more poorly on the complex tasks than did the controls. The identification of a neurobehavioral profile in children with prenatal alcohol exposure will help clinicians identify and diagnose children with FASD.