Prenatal alcohol exposure affects visual processing

  • Problems with "sustained attention" are often found in individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol.
  • A new study examines visual and auditory processing among different groups of adolescents.
  • Most adolescents were found to process visual information more effectively than auditory.
  • Conversely, dysmorphic adolescents (those showing physical effects of alcohol exposure) processed visual information less effectively than auditory.

Problems with attention are so frequently reported in association with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) that some researchers believe they may comprise a "core feature" of FAS. Attention, however, is a complex phenomenon. What is usually associated with the impulsivity and behavioral inattention found in studies of FAS subjects can in fact be referred to as "sustained attention" - the effort, resource or capacity to maintain a focused alertness in perceiving a signal. A study in the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research examines the ability of adolescents, with and without prenatal exposure to alcohol, to maintain visual and auditory sustained attention.

"We wanted to know if there are specific effects of FAS," said Claire D. Coles, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "Are these effects different than those of kids who are mentally retarded or just have a low IQ? Also, how can we identify functional deficits and behaviors? How are those linked to specific areas in the brain?"

Study participants were 265 low-income and predominantly African American adolescents with an average age of 15 years. The adolescents were divided into four groups: 53 controls who were not prenatally exposed to alcohol; 46 alcohol-exposed adolescents who showed physical effects of this exposure (dysmorphic); 82 alcohol-exposed adolescents who did not show physical effects of


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