College of LAS « Illinois

Psychology

Hope for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Research offers hope for reversing some damage.

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Mothers who consume alcohol during pregnancy, especially during the trimester when infants' brains are developing, place their unborn children at risk for a variety of physical, mental, and neurological defects that often lead to severe behavioral, learning and mobility problems. Collectively called Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, these disorders affect about 0.1 percent of all U.S. newborns. Ten times that many children suffer other forms of alcohol-related developmental disorders.

Although FAS was once deemed untreatable, new studies in LAS indicate that it may be possible to reverse some of the damage, if the symptoms are caught early. Studies with rats showed that intensive physical and behavioral exercises conducted shortly after birth, helped to restore some of damaged brain circuitry that is source of the disabilities.

Anna Y. Klintsova, a visiting professor of psychology, and William T. Greenough, Swanlund Endowed Professor of Psychology, believe that an increase in the formation of synapses, the connections of communications, by neurons in the cerebellum led to the behavioral recovery of the alcohol-exposed rats. The cerebellum is responsible for coordinating very precise components involved in movement.

Because the brain is more plastic, more changeable, early in life, Klintsova explains, "the earlier you start intervention, the more benefits a child is likely to get."

Although FAS is preventable, a 1998 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found both increasing rates of drinking by pregnant mothers and FAS in the last 15 years.

Spring 2003