New Way of Detecting Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
> 2/22/2008 11:30:15 AM

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, one of the leading causes of retardation, is associated with a number of glaring development problems, from facial abnormalities to aberrant behavior. Even with such signs available for diagnosis, FAS is often mistaken for a behavioral problem like ADHD, resulting in improper treatment. In addition to FAS, there are a whole range of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders that are much harder to diagnose. Fortunately, the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research features an article on a novel way to detect even subtle neural damage caused by alcohol exposure.

Dr. Sandra Jacobson examined 95 five-year-old children in Cape Town. All of these children were eventually evaluated for FAS and for prenatal alcohol exposure, but first the researchers attempted to train them in a simple eye-blinking task. A sound was accompanied over and over with a gust of air to the face, causing 86.7% of the healthy children to quickly make the Pavlovian association and thus blink every time they heard the sound. None of the FAS children learned the association, and very few of the alcohol exposed (but not FAS level) children learned to blink.

Dr. Jacobson determined that impaired Pavlovian response was unique to alcohol exposure by adjusting for IQ and by comparing alcohol exposed groups to groups with microcephaly from other causes. Microcephaly, meaning small brain, is a severe developmental problem that causes a long list of symptoms, the most important for this study being delayed motor function. If children with microcephaly learn to blink, then the blinking test really can be used as a reliable detector of the signature damage left by alcohol.

This new detection method is valuable because, while there is no way to repair the devastation of FAS, the damage can be mitigated by assuring a nurturing environment for the child. If behavioral problems are wrongly attributed to other disorders or to personality, then damaging medication or punishment might be mistakenly used. Hopefully, the extra diagnoses that result from the blink test will help dissuade expectant mothers from drinking at all. While drinking in moderation may not bring obvious FAS, it does raise the risk of more cryptic neurological problems.

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