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Cognitive Changes May Be Only Sign of Fetal Alcohol Exposure – Give Kids a Chance


Fetal alcohol syndrome refers to a pattern of birth defects found in children of mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. These involve a characteristic pattern of facial abnormalities, growth retardation, and brain damage. Neurological and physical differences seen in children exposed to alcohol prenatally — but who do not have the full pattern of birth defects seen in fetal alcohol syndrome — are classified as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders


According to a study published online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research (23 July 2012), most children exposed to high levels of alcohol in the womb do not develop the distinct facial features seen in fetal alcohol syndrome, but instead show signs of abnormal intellectual or behavioral development. These abnormalities of the nervous system involved language delays, hyperactivity, attention deficits or intellectual delays. The authors used the term “s functional neurologic impairment” to describe these abnormalities. The authors documented an abnormality in one of these areas in about 44% of children whose mothers drank four or more drinks per day during pregnancy. In contrast, abnormal facial features were present in about 17% of alcohol exposed children.


The authors’ concern is that in the absence of the distinctive facial features, health care providers evaluating children with any of these functional neurological impairments might miss their history of fetal alcohol exposure and as a result, children might not be referred for appropriate treatment and services.”


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on the treatments for FASD.


The study was conducted as part of a long-term study of heavy drinking in pregnancy known as the NICHD-University of Chile Alcohol in Pregnancy Study. To conduct the study, the authors asked over 9,000 women at a community health clinic in Santiago, Chile about their alcohol use during pregnancy. They found 101 pregnant women, who had four or more drinks per day during their pregnancies and matched them with 101 women having similar characteristics but who consumed no alcohol when they were pregnant. After these women gave birth, the authors evaluated the infants’ health and conducted regular assessments of their physical, intellectual and emotional development through age 8.


The authors documented differences in the rate of children affected in the following areas:


Abnormal facial features

— Alcohol exposed: 17%

— Unexposed: 1%


Delayed growth

— Alcohol exposed: 27%

— Unexposed: 13%


Cognitive delays (including intellectual)

— Alcohol exposed: 35%

— Unexposed: 6%


Language delays

— Alcohol exposed: 42%

— Unexposed: 24%



— Alcohol exposed: 27%

— Unexposed: 2%

Some of the women with heavy drinking habits also engaged in binge drinking (5 or more drinks at a time). Even though these women already had high levels of alcohol consumption, the authors found that this habit increased the likelihood of poor outcomes for their children.


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