Caudate Volume Predicts Neurocognitive Performance in Youth with Heavy Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Authors

  • Susanna L. Fryer,

    1. Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California
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  • Sarah N. Mattson,

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Psychology and the Center for Behavioral Teratology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
    • Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Francisco, San Francisco, California
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  • Terry L. Jernigan,

    1. Department of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
    2. Department of Radiology, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
    3. Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
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  • Sarah L. Archibald,

    1. Department of Radiology, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
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  • Kenneth Lyons Jones,

    1. Department of Pediatrics, University of California, San Diego, San Diego, California
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  • Edward P. Riley

    1. Department of Psychology and the Center for Behavioral Teratology, San Diego State University, San Diego, California
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Reprint requests: Sarah N. Mattson, PhD, 6330 Alvarado Court, Suite 100, San Diego, CA 92120; Tel.: 619-594-7228; Fax: 619-594-1895; E-mail: smattson@sunstroke.sdsu.edu

Abstract

Background

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders result from heavy prenatal alcohol exposure and are characterized, in some cases, by central nervous system anomalies and cognitive impairment. Regional patterns of neuroanatomical abnormalities suggest that alcohol exerts selective damage on the developing fetal brain. This study assessed brain–behavior relationships in a sample of youth with histories of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure. The aim was to characterize how structural brain alterations observed in our previous studies relate to cognitive deficits commonly reported in individuals with histories of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure.

Methods

Twenty-one youth (mean age 13 years) with histories of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure and 7 nonexposed healthy comparison subjects underwent structural magnetic resonance imaging and neurobehavioral testing. Regional brain volumes within the alcohol-exposed group were correlated with neuropsychological measures of cognitive control and verbal learning/recall, as these aspects of cognition have previously been shown to be vulnerable to alcohol teratogenesis.

Results

Between-group effect sizes revealed moderate to large cognitive performance and brain volume decrements in alcohol-exposed subjects, compared with typically developing peers. Within the alcohol-exposed group, volume of the caudate nuclei was the most consistent predictor of neuropsychological performance, after controlling for potentially confounding variables including total brain volume, IQ, and age.

Conclusions

These data are consistent with previous research associating gestational alcohol exposure with structural and functional changes of the caudate nucleus. Our findings extend this previous work by demonstrating that volume reductions of the caudate have behavioral relevance for this population, in relation to cognitive control and verbal learning and recall abilities.

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