A new study by an international team of researchers reveals that teens who were exposed to alcohol in the womb exhibit altered brain connections consistent with impaired cognitive performance.
The study, published in the journal Chaos, is one of the first to investigate the biological changes in the brain that drive fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
FASD is one of the leading causes of intellectual disability worldwide and is linked to a wide range of neurological issues, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The findings were reached by measuring the responses from a brain imaging technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG) and then analyzing them with tools developed using chaos theory, a branch of mathematics that deals with complex systems that are highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions.
“The paper provides important integrative results for the field of FASD,” said Julia Stephen, Ph.D., an author on the paper. “These results may then indicate that simple sensory measures may provide sensitivity for brain deficits that affect the broader cognitive domain.”
Previous attempts to study the brain circuitry in affected individuals have been hindered by the difficulty of drawing conclusions from the complicated data of magnetoencephalography (MEG). MEG is a neuroimaging technique that maps brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by the brain’s natural electrical currents.
To get to the heart of the problem, the researchers developed a sophisticated computer technique that could identify which areas of the brain were active when subjects were in the MEG machine.
After data from 19 FASD patients and 21 subjects without FASD was collected, the computational approach revealed several areas of the brain that showed impaired connectivity in the FASD group.
Subjects who were exposed to alcohol in the womb were more likely to have problems with connections through their corpus callosum, the band of brain tissue that connects the left and right halves of the brain. Deficits in this area have been reported in individuals with schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, autism, depression and abnormalities in sensation.
“This work presents major evidence that children exposed to alcohol prenatally are at risk of suffering from impaired cognitive abilities and other secondary factors,” said Lin Gao, Ph.D., lead author on the paper. “Our study … shows that there is no safe amount or safe stages during pregnancy for alcohol consumption.”
The researchers hope the study inspires other groups to conduct similarly collaborative research on diseases like FASD that benefit from drawing together medical and computational fields.
Source: American Institute of Physics