Queen's-led network looks at FAS aiming to minimize life-long learning problems

$1.5 million funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research positions researchers to evaluate new diagnostic tools and therapeutic interventions

Kingston, Ont. -- For the first time researchers are testing to see whether fetal exposure to methanol, a contaminant found in many alcoholic beverages, plays an important role in causing the life-long learning and behavioural problems associated with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

By understanding fetal brain injury caused by exposure to methanol and related toxins, an emerging team of researchers is laying the groundwork for potential new therapeutic interventions to protect fetuses at risk for FASD.

"The main goal will always be prevention of FASD," says lead researcher James Reynolds, Queen's University professor of Toxicology and Pharmacology, "but we also have to develop strategies to minimize injury to the developing fetus and individualize earlier therapeutic interventions for children with pre-natal exposure to alcohol."

The interdisciplinary research team, which also includes James Brien and Doug Munoz from Queen's, Peter Carlen (University Health Network), Bhushan Kapur (Sunnybrook Hospital) and Brenda Stade (St. Michael's Hospital) from Toronto, received just under $1.5 million dollars in funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The Queen's researchers have found that simple eye movement tasks can be used to assess brain function in children with FASD. Since this technology is portable, the researchers plan to travel across the country to bring the research program into affected communities. "It's estimated that the incidence of FASD is about one per cent in the general population," Dr. Reynolds says, "but there are regions and communities in this country where the population affected by FASD increases dramatically."

Using blood samples from at risk mother-baby pairs, the Toronto team members hope to identify biological markers that may predict brain injury in the child. At risk babies will be tracked for 24 months following birth so researchers can identify early signs of FASD and develop aggressive therapeutic interventions at earlier stages to minimize the effects on a child's development.

To understand the underlying mechanisms of this novel hypothesis of FASD, the Toronto team members are studying the effects of formic acid and folic acid on the biological functions and survival of neurons in isolated brain tissue. In parallel studies, the Kingston team will assess the efficacy of folic acid supplementation as a potential therapeutic intervention in preventing FASD.

For these researchers, an exciting opportunity has been created by linking this study with Queen's University's state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) facility. New experimental procedures being developed at Queen's will link eye movement tasks to MRI images of the brain, creating an objective and much more specific way to evaluate brain function. By isolating individual brain responses, FASD researchers hope to gain greater insight into the underlying brain injury caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol, leading to more specific intervention therapies designed to minimize the affects of FASD.

"Not all children exposed to alcohol during prenatal life develop FASD," adds Dr. Reynolds. "There are other contributing factors including genetic predisposition and nutrition during gestation that make important contributions to the ultimate outcome. We need a way to identify the different sub-groups within the FASD spectrum. This research will help us develop the standardized tools we need to evaluate and treat children with FASD."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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