Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) Pediatric Research and Clinical Trials

More than one million babies born annually in the United States are exposed to cocaine, alcohol or tobacco before birth. Now, an NIH-funded study led by Michael Rivkin, MD, of Neurology, suggests that such exposures may have effects on brain structure that persist into adolescence.

Rivkin and colleagues at Boston Medical Center used volumetric MRI imaging to study the brain structures of 21 young adolescents with prenatal substance exposures and 14 with no exposures. Adolescents exposed prenatally to cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes showed reductions in total brain volume and in gray matter in the brain's cerebral cortex, important in many cognitive functions. There were too few children to find statistically significant effects of any single substance after accounting for other exposures, but the more substances a child was exposed to, the greater the reduction in brain volume.

Especially striking was the finding that prenatal tobacco exposure alone had an effect on brain volume that fell just short of statistical significance. "About 20 percent of women who smoke continue to do so during pregnancy," Rivkin notes.

The study was published in the April Pediatrics. Rivkin and colleagues now hope to get funding to confirm their findings in a larger group of children.

Preventing and treating disabilities

Boston Children’s Hospital’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC) is one of 20 research centers around the country dedicated to the study of mental retardation and developmental disabilities, with the goal translating basic research into improved care approaches. Our scientists are studying fetal alcohol syndrome and the impact of environmental factors in the etiology, treatment and prevention of mental retardation and developmental disabilities.