Prenatal Alcohol Exposure & Adaptive Ability

Executive function is impaired by prenatal alcohol exposure and ADHD

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Exactly how does prenatal alcohol exposure slow down a kid’s cognitive ability? Compared to normal kids, they seem to have a much tougher time with ‘higher order’ thought process.

A new study that compares kids with ADHD, prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and normal brain function shows where cognitive function is different.

Isolating which areas need help specific to the disorder may help with treatment and education in the developmental years.

"If you’re pregnant: do not consume alcohol!"

Sarah N. Mattson PhD., associate director of the Center for Behavioral Teratology and professor in the department of Psychology at San Diego State University, and her colleagues set out to understand prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and its relationship with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As part of a much larger study known as The Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD) Mattson’s team looked at three groups of kids aged 8-18. The groups were: 142 kids with heavy exposure to PAE, 82 kids with ADHD and no PAE, and 133 kids with neither PAE nor ADHD to act as the control group.

All of the children took the Delis-Kaplan Executive Function System (D-KEFS) test and their primary caregivers took the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-II. These tests were used to assess the children’s executive function (EF).

EF has to do with advanced decision making and thought process in the brain: organization, working towards a goal, seeing the big picture and managing things.

According to Mattson, “Previous studies have shown that both EF and adaptive behavior are impaired in children with PAE. These impairments have been related to ADHD and the two disorders share some features. However, there are differences as well. Previous studies only looked at EF and adaptive behavior separately.”

The test results showed that the ability to adapt comes from the quality of EF.

For ADHD kids, the adaptive abilities were related to three out of four of the EF measures. The kids exposed to prenatal alcohol specifically had trouble with the nonverbal EF measures.

The adaptive composite scores of the PAE group were 9.19 percent worse than the ADHD group, and the ADHD group were 8.27 percent worse than the control group.

Mattson says of the study, “Our findings add to the literature by comparing these two important childhood disorders. By clarifying what is unique to FASD and what is shared with other developmental conditions, we can improve differential diagnosis and provide a framework for the development of targeted interventions.”

This study will be published in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER), August 2012. Research was funded by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, no conflicts of interest were reported.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 14, 2012
Last Updated:
July 12, 2012