Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an umbrella term used to describe the broad range of disorders caused by consuming alcohol during pregnancy. An estimated 1 in 100 children in Canada is affected by FASD. They experience difficulties with learning, memory, attention, communication and behaviour, amongst a range of challenges.

Prenatal alcohol exposure is a major, preventable cause of behavioural and cognitive deficits in children. Despite extensive research, a unique, neurologically based behavioural profile for children affected by prenatal alcohol exposure remains elusive.

Kids Brain Health Network's Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) Research Group is examining gene-environment interactions, predictive biomarkers, and the relationship between structural alterations in the brain and functional outcomes. A fundamental question to be addressed in this research project is how genetic and environmental factors interact with gestational alcohol exposure to produce neurobehavioural and neurobiological deficits in children.

Our FASD Research Project Initiatives

FASD Genetics Study

Kids Brain Health's FASD research group is investigating if the behaviour seen in children with FASD is related to their genetic makeup. The key objectives of our team are to:

• Identify the genes and changes in gene activity (epigenetics) that may predict the physical and behavioural effects of fetal exposure to alcohol, and to
• Determine the relationship between changes in brain structure caused by fetal alcohol exposure during pregnancy, and behavioural outcomes in exposed children.

Children enrolled in the study are given psychological and behavioural assessments and are tested for genetic traits that may be linked with FASD. Tandem animal studies will be used to confirm the role of genes associated with the disorder, and to relate specific genes with behavioural traits. This research could help identify at-risk children much earlier than is currently possible, and can guide the development of new treatments or interventions for FASD.

Multi-site imaging study

Kids Brain Health has generated one of the largest FASD databases in the world, which links MRI brain scans with information on children’s behavioural and learning profiles gathered in clinical settings. In the course of this study, our neuroimaging researchers have proved it possible to overcome the calibration challenges involved in using different MRI equipment at different sites, and are able to generate comparable data across the country.

Innovative technology research and development for FASD

• Computer games designed to improve attention and working memory in children with FASD are being evaluated in a pilot study. If successful, the games could be used in school settings facilitated by a trained therapist, and at home with a caregiver receiving support via the web. As attention and working memory problems are features of autism and ADHD, the games show promise for children with other neurodevelopmental disorders.

• Children with FASD are learning to remain calm and stay focused with the help of a neurofeedback system that can be linked to standard computer games. The system relies on Electroencephalography, or EEG, measures of the electrical activity of the brain. When the child’s EEG activity is no longer in a calm state, the child’s video screen begins to fill with clouds or spiders, which helps the child develop awareness of the shift from a state of focus to lack of attention. Our researchers hope the system will help children with FASD learn to control their anxiety levels, and increase their capacity to concentrate.

• Exercise may help improve learning and memory in children with FASD. In a recent study, participants played a video game that operated as long as the children pedaled a specially wired exercise bicycle. The children’s capacity to learn and remember was tested before beginning the program, and again during, and after participating in the program.

Animal model research

Informing and supporting the clinical projects, a rat model of FASD is being utilized to identify biomarkers for alcohol exposure, investigate mechanisms underlying alcohol-related deficits, and test interventions to lessen behavioural and physical impacts of FASD, all under tightly controlled conditions not possible in clinical studies.

In our studies to date, we have identified neurobehavioural measures associated with vulnerability and resilience, identified possible mechanisms underlying alcohol-related deficits in executive function and social behavior, and found a correlations between stress hormones, social status, and cognitive performance, indicating that stress system dysregulation results in increased sensitivity to early life social and environmental factors.

These results are paralleled by novel clinical findings showing stress system dysregulation in children with FASD, and links between alterations in stress hormones, early life adversity and adverse outcomes.

Finally, in parallel with the clinical genetics study, we are currently analyzing gene expression/epigenetic profiles of the developing brain and white blood cells to identify epigenetic changes that could alter the developmental trajectory and underlie later life outcomes.

A unique strength of the rat model in this area of research is the ability to compare findings in blood and brain directly, which is critical in informing the clinical work where only peripheral tissues such as blood and buccal epithelial cells are available for analysis.

Knowledge Translation

The FASD research group and the Knowledge Translation team are collaborating on a program where families involved in Kids Brain Health research projects become actively engaged in the process of knowledge translation. The objective of the program is to enhance family participation in health research, while informing researchers’ understanding of family needs. Knowledge gained in this project will be used to build a family-centred education and support program that can be accessed in the home. Kids Brain Health will share its findings with health professionals to help identify gaps in information sharing and uptake, and improve services provided to families.

Team Leads

James Reynolds
Queen’s University

Joanne Weinberg
University of British Columbia

Albert Chudley
University of Manitoba