A Review of the Neuroanatomical Findings in Children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol

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Abstract

Human and animal studies have clearly demonstrated that alcohol is both a physical and behavioral teratogen and that heavy prenatal alcohol exposure can lead to a distinct pattern of birth defects termed the fetal alcohol syndrome. Underlying the behavioral and cognitive anomalies seen in fetal alcohol syndrome are alterations in brain structure and/or function. This paper reviews the literature examining brain anomalies attributable to prenatal alcohol exposure, beginning with a survey of autopsy studies and leading up to current findings using magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography studies. Autopsy reports clearly illustrate the wide and devastating influence alcohol has on the developing brain, although for the most part no specific pattern of brain malformation has been identified. More recent magnetic resonance imaging studies, particularly when combined with quantitative analysis, have indicated that specific brain areas—such as the basal ganglia, the corpus callosum, and parts of the cerebellum—might be especially susceptible to alcohol's teratogenic effects. Further studies using functional brain imaging techniques may provide even more information about the unique effects prenatal alcohol exposure has on the developing brain. Discovering specific areas of the brain that are affected by alcohol may allow clinicians and researchers to look for patterns of vulnerable regions in the brain, thereby helping in the future detection of children who are prenatally exposed to alcohol.

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