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Keywords:

  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders;
  • Binge Drinking;
  • Habituation;
  • Brain Function;
  • Neurobehavioral Development

Background

Studies of the adverse neurobehavioral effects of maternal alcohol consumption on the fetus have been largely confined to the postnatal period, after exposure to alcohol has finished. This study explored the brain function of the fetus, at the time of exposure to alcohol, to examine its effect on information processing and stability of performance.

Methods

Five groups of fetuses, defined by maternal alcohol consumption patterns, were examined: control (no alcohol); moderate (5 to 10 units/wk either drunk evenly across the week or as a binge, in 2 to 3 days); heavy (20+ units/wk drunk evenly or as a binge). Fetal habituation performance was examined on 3 occasions, separated by 7 days, beginning at 35 weeks of gestation. The number of trials required to habituate on each test session and the difference in performance across test sessions were recorded.

Results

Fetuses exposed to heavy binge drinking required significantly more trials to habituate and exhibited a greater variability in performance across all test sessions than the other groups. Maternal drinking, either heavily but evenly or moderately as a binge, resulted in poorer habituation, and moderate binge drinking resulted in greater variability compared with no, or even, drinking.

Conclusions

Decreased information processing, reflected by poorer habituation, and increased variability in performance may reflect the initial manifestations of structural damage caused by alcohol to the brain. These results will lead to a greater understanding of the effects of alcohol on the fetus's brain, enable the antenatal identification of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and lead to the early implementation of better management strategies.