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Eyeblink Conditioning May Help Diagnose Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Children

Posted in Women

New research suggests that eyeblink conditioning may help physicians diagnose children with fetal alcohol syndrome, a condition which is currently extremely difficult to diagnose. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) are irreversible conditions in children that affect the regions of the brain that control learning, resulting in lifelong cognitive and behavioral impairments. Fetal alcohol syndrome is the most severe form of the disorder.

While fetal alcohol syndrome is characterized by distinct facial features and growth retardation, many children with the disorder do not display these features, and there is currently no diagnostic criteria to identify them. Now, researchers at the Wayne State University School of Medicine have discovered a way to help physicians diagnose children with the disorder.

Sandra Jacobson, a professor in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and lead author of the study, said that their research looked at whether heavy exposure to alcohol during pregnancy impacts delay and trace learning in school-age children.

For the study, the researched paired a tone with a puff of air into a child’s eye, making him or her blink. This would help them determine whether heavy prenatal alcohol exposure affected the child’s ability to associate the tone with the puff, leading him or her to blink when the tone was heard. If delay conditioning was involved, there was an overlap between the tone and the puff; if trace conditioning was involved, there was a stimulus-free interval between the tone and the puff.

They tested 63 children on delay conditioning and later tested 32 of the same children on trace conditioning a year and a half later in Cape Town, South Africa, where there is a high rate of women drinking heavily while pregnant. Of the 34 children that were heavily exposed to alcohol, six were diagnosed with FAS and 28 were classified as being highly exposed to alcohol but lacking the facial abnormalities that characterize FAS. The other 29 children were born to light or non-drinkers.

About 33 percent of the FAS children met the requirements for delay condition, compared to 79 percent of children who were born to light or non-drinkers. About 17 percent of the FAS children met the requirements for trace condition, comapared with 67 percent of the control group.

Claire Coles, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science and pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, said that those diagnosed with FASD were significantly slower at processing information, and were unable to meet the criteria for eyeblink conditioning. She added that extending the training for some of the children who didn’t meet the initial criteria helped them form a response, although it was an impaired response.

Coles noted that this type of learning is only one aspect of memory, and that mapping out the learning deficits that are a result of prenatal alcohol exposure could help with developing interventions.

The researchers noted that further research is needed to better understand how prenatal alcohol exposure affects brain development and to better identify children with FASD to improve treatments and interventions.

Source: Science Daily, Eyeblink Conditioning May Help in Assessing Children With Fetal Alcohol Exposure, November 23, 2010