High-tech 'phrenology' to identify children with fetal alcohol syndrome


INDIANAPOLIS Indiana University School of Medicine is taking a close look at the faces of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism is paying for it to do so.

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, the only preventable birth defect, can have a devastating impact on its victims, but in some cases the effects are so minimal children are denied needed assistance and benefits. The NIAAA awarded IU two grants totaling $784,334 to conduct the research and manage the data.

To better define the visual characteristics of the syndrome, IU researchers will use sophisticated technology and facial recognition techniques to examine the faces of children from across the globe.

"Some children exhibit classic features of FAS and other children have a more mild, less visually obvious version of the disorder, which may not be as recognizable but still can result in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders," said Tatiana Foroud, Ph.D., associate professor of medical and molecular genetics at the Indiana University School of Medicine and the principal investigator of the study.

Telltale signs of children with FAS are small eyes spaced far apart, an underdeveloped face, a smooth surface between the nose and upper lip, and growth retardation. The study will establish key points for recognition of FAS. To accomplish this, the talents of several disciplines are needed.

Jeffrey Huang, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Shiaofen Fang, Ph.D., associate professor, Department of Computer and Information Science, are experts in facial recognition technology. They have been working with the National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Department of Defense for 10 years developing and improving technology for identity verification processes. Their expertise in facial scanning and computer science will be used to produce a model from which differences in facial patterns can be identified and then used to assist with diagnosis.

Each child is photographed from three angles. Key spots which serve as "compass points" on the face and head in each photograph to allow Drs. Huang and Fang to manipulate the images creating a three-dimensional computer image. From that model standardized measurements can be establish. Those measurements include distance from ear to ear, facial arcs, and others that will result in a proportional scale.

By creating the 3-D model, scientists can apply this assessment tool to children from various cultures. That is where the expertise of Richard Ward, Ph.D., professor of anthropology and of oral-facial genetics at the IU School of Dentistry, and Elizabeth Moore, Ph.D., a medical anthropologist and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome research analyst at St. Vincent's Hospital, is needed.

Their role is to assist with the identification of the cultural differences in facial structures, oversee the photography and develop the pattern for stitching the three photographic images together into a view that can be used to create a 3-D model.

Craig Stewart, Ph.D., director for Research and Academic Computing and of the Indiana Genomics Initiative Information Technology Core, and an adjunct associate professor of the Department of Medical and Molecular Genetics, is in charge of the computational aspects of this research project. Dr. Stewart is the principal investigator for one of the two NIAAA grants obtained by IU to conduct this study.

Children from areas with a heavier than average alcohol use are participants in this study. They include children from South Africa, Finland, Moscow and the Plains Native Americans, as well as groups from Buffalo, N.Y., and San Diego.

"Behavioral and cognitive problems are real issues for children with FAS," said Dr. Foroud. "If successful, using facial differentiation as a diagnostic tool may standardize FAS assessments and allow all children with the disorder to receive the services they need."

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
    Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.