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Complex physical learning may compensate for prenatal alcohol exposure, study shows

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Complex physical learning may help children overcome some mental disabilities that result from prenatal alcohol consumption by their mothers, say researchers whose experiments led to increased wiring in the brains of young rats.

In their study, infant rats were exposed to alcohol during a period of brain development (especially in the cerebellum) that is similar to that of the human third trimester of pregnancy. In adulthood, the rats improved their learning skills during a 20-day regimen of complex motor training, and generated new synapses in their cerebellum.

About 0.1 percent of U.S. births involve newborns with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, characterized by a variety of physical, mental and neurological defects that often lead to behavioral, learning and mobility problems. Ten times that many children, also exposed to alcohol before birth, may not meet the diagnostic criteria for FAS but still have behavioral and brain defects that are now classified as alcohol-related developmental disorders.

Simply not drinking during pregnancy could prevent such damage, but 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.

"The disorders associated with fetal exposure to alcohol are, by far, the leading known cause of mental retardation and developmental delay in this country and most others," said study co-author William T. Greenough, Swanlund Endowed Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "In addition to the social cost, the economic cost is hundreds of billions of dollars each year. While it is, in principle, completely possible to prevent these disorders, this has not happened, even with increased public awareness. Hence it is critical to learn how to do as much as possible to improve the outcome for those affected by fetal alcohol exposure."

The study, published in the journal Brain Rese
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Contact: Jim Barlow
b-james3@uiuc.edu
217-333-5802
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
7-Aug-2002


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