Background: Although an extensive literature has documented a broad range of cognitive performance deficits in children with prenatal alcohol exposure, little is known about how the neurophysiological processes underlying these deficits may be affected. Event-related potentials (ERPs), which reflect task-specific changes in brain electrical activity, provide a method for examining multiple constituents of cognitive processing at the neural level.
Methods: We recorded ERPs in 217 children from Inuit communities in Arctic Quebec (M age = 11.3 years) during 2 different tasks—Go/No-go response inhibition and continuous recognition memory. Children were classified as either alcohol-exposed (ALC) or controls (CON) depending on whether the mother reported binge drinking during pregnancy.
Results: Both groups performed comparably in terms of accuracy and reaction time on the tasks, and both tasks elicited the expected effects on ERPs when responses were compared across conditions. However, the ALC group showed slower P2 latencies on Go/No-go, suggesting an altered neurophysiological response associated with initial visual processing of the stimuli. On the memory task, the ALC group showed reduced FN400 amplitude to New items, known as the familiarity effect, and reduced amplitude for the late positive component, possibly reflecting impairment in memory retrieval.
Conclusions: These findings show that, even in tasks in which alcohol-exposed children exhibit behavioral performance that is comparable to controls, fetal alcohol exposure is associated with altered neurophysiological processing of response inhibition and recognition memory. The data suggest that fetal alcohol exposure is associated with reduced efficiency in the initial extracting of the meaning of a stimulus, reduced allocation of attention to the task, and poorer conscious, explicit recognition memory processing.