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Competency 2: Identification of FASD and Diagnosis of FAS

Specific Areas of the Brain Most Vulnerable to Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Specific areas of the brain that can be affected by alcohol include:

  • Corpus Callosum. The corpus callosum connects the two hemispheres of the brain, allowing the left and right sides to communicate. Prenatal alcohol exposure can cause abnormalities such as thinning or malformation of the corpus callosum. These abnormalities have been linked to deficits in attention, intellectual function, reading, learning, verbal memory, executive function, and psychosocial functioning.9
  • Hippocampus. The hippocampus is involved in memory, but its precise function is uncertain. Alcohol can change the fibers and cause cell reduction. Some persons with prenatal alcohol exposure have deficits in spatial memory and other memory functions associated with the hippocampus.9
  • Basal Ganglia. The basal ganglia are nerve cell clusters involved in motor abilities and cognitive functions. Heavy prenatal alcohol exposure can reduce basal ganglia volume. This can affect skills related to perception, such as the ability to manage time or inhibit inappropriate behavior.9
  • Cerebellum. The cerebellum is involved in both motor and cognitive skills. The cerebellum tends to be smaller in people with an FASD. Damage to the cerebellum can cause learning deficits and problems with motor skills, such as balance and coordination.9
Cerebelum, the walnut-shaped structure at the base of the brain
  • Frontal Lobes. The frontal lobes control executive functions, such as planning and problem solving. They also control impulses and judgment.9 Frontal lobes can be smaller in teenagers and young adults prenatally exposed to alcohol. Persons with an FASD may have poor impulse control and self-monitoring.10 They might engage in risky or illegal activity to fit in with peers.

This damage can lead to developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavior problems, such as:

  • Mental retardation
  • Attention deficits
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor impulse control
  • Problems in social perception
  • Speech and language delays or deficits
  • Poor capacity for abstract thinking
  • Specific deficits in math skills
  • Problems in memory, attention, or judgment
  • Problems with cause and effect
  • Problems anticipating consequences
  • Problems changing behavior or response in different situations

Although many of these problems may respond to medication and behavioral interventions, the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure are permanent.

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