Background: Prenatal alcohol exposure is related to a wide range of neurocognitive effects. Eyeblink conditioning (EBC), which involves temporal pairing of a conditioned with an unconditioned stimulus, has been shown to be a potential biomarker of fetal alcohol exposure. A growing body of evidence suggests that white matter may be a specific target of alcohol teratogenesis, and the neural circuitry underlying EBC is known to involve the cerebellar peduncles. Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technique that has proven useful for assessing central nervous system white matter integrity. This study used DTI to examine the degree to which the fetal alcohol-related deficit in EBC may be mediated by structural impairment in the cerebellar peduncles.
Methods: Thirteen children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and 12 matched controls were scanned using DTI and structural MRI sequences. The DTI data were processed using a voxelwise technique, and the structural data were used for volumetric analyses. Prenatal alcohol exposure group and EBC performance were examined in relation to brain volumes and outputs from the DTI analysis.
Results: Fractional anisotropy (FA) and perpendicular diffusivity group differences between alcohol-exposed and nonexposed children were identified in the left middle cerebellar peduncle. Alcohol exposure correlated with lower FA and greater perpendicular diffusivity in this region, and these correlations remained significant even after controlling for total brain and cerebellar volumes. Conversely, trace conditioning performance was related to higher FA and lower perpendicular diffusivity in the left middle peduncle. The effect of prenatal alcohol exposure on trace conditioning was partially mediated by lower FA in this region.
Conclusions: This study extends recent findings that have used DTI to reveal microstructural deficits in white matter in children with FASD. This is the first DTI study to demonstrate mediation of a fetal alcohol-related effect on neuropsychological function by deficits in white matter integrity.