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Eye Blinks May ID Fetal Alcohol Exposure

Study links a brain area to later learning deficits

MONDAY, Feb. 4 (HealthDay News) -- Eye blinking may help doctors identify children exposed to alcohol during pregnancy but who don't have the distinctive facial features usually associated with the exposure, a new study suggests.

"Eyeblink conditioning (EBC) is a Pavlovian paradigm that involves temporal pairing of a conditioned stimulus, such as a tone, with an unconditioned stimulus, such as an air puff," study first author Sandra W. Jacobson, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement.

"Animal studies have shown that binge consumption of alcohol during pregnancy impairs EBC. We wanted to see if we could use the EBC paradigm to identify underlying or subcortical deficits that are specifically affected by prenatal alcohol exposure in children," Jacobson said.

She and her colleagues administered EBC (which paired a tone with an air puff) to 98 South African 5-year-olds and found a link between EBC deficit and fetal alcohol exposure.

"Our results show that there was a dose-response relation between alcohol exposure and FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorder] diagnosis and that a fundamental element of learning is affected by prenatal alcohol exposure," Jacobson said. "We next need to extend the study of the EBC paradigm with fetal alcohol-exposed children to see how their exposure impacts on children at different ages."

The findings were published in the February issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

"This study clearly links one brain area to the learning deficits experienced by FAS children, whether or not they have physical manifestations of the condition, and thus can provide a basis for the development of remediation programs," Lynn T. Singer, deputy provost and vice president for academic programs at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said in a prepared statement.

"Second, since normal human infants reach functional capacity on the EBC response by five months of age, and since the EBC deficit appears to be so sensitive, infants at risk can be identified early in life, and intervention programs can begin when the plasticity of the brain is greatest and have the strongest effect," Singer said.

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more about fetal alcohol syndrome.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, news release, Feb. 3, 2008

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