Wayne State University

Study by Wayne State University researcher reveals eyeblink conditioning may help assess children with fetal alcohol exposure

DETROIT—Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is an irreversible disorder in children that affects the learning centers of the brain and results in lifetime cognitive and behavioral impairment. A major problem in studying and treating FASD is that it is difficult to diagnose. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), the most severe form of the disorder, is characterized by a distinct set of facial features and growth retardation, but a majority of alcohol-exposed children lack these features making it more difficult to identify them.

A new study by researchers at Wayne State University released in the February 2011 issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, which is currently available at Early View, has researched this problem and discovered that by using classical conditioning methods, a consistent FASD deficit has been identified.

The study, “Impaired delay and trace eyeblink conditioning in school-age children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome,” led by Sandra Jacobson, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University’s School of Medicine, and honorary professor at University of Cape Town Faculty of Health Sciences, examined whether heavy prenatal alcohol exposure has an impact on both delay and trace learning in school-age children.

The research team tested 63 school-age children on delay conditioning, and then returned to test 32 of the same children on trace conditioning 1.5 years later in Cape Town, South Africa, an area that suffers from high rates of heavy drinking during pregnancy by women.

The study involved pairing a tone with a puff of air to the child’s eye, causing the child to blink. The goal was to determine if heavy alcohol exposure affected the child’s ability to associate the tone with the puff, causing them to blink when the tone was heard. Delay conditioning involves an overlap between the tone and the puff of air, while trace conditioning involves the more difficult task of introducing a stimulus-free interval between the tone and air puff.

“Although trace conditioning is more complex, we found that the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on both forms of conditioning was similar in magnitude,” said Jacobson. “This suggests that the alcohol effect on the cerebellar neural circuits that mediate both forms of conditioning may be responsible for the deficits seen in both tasks.”

This study suggests that eyeblink conditioning could provide a good model for assessing and identifying alcohol-affected children.

Co-authors of the paper included Mark E. Stanton, University of Delaware; Joseph L. Jacobson, Wayne State University; Christopher D. Molteno, University of Cape Town Faculty of Health Sciences.

To view the full paper, visit http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01341.x/full.

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Wayne State University is one of the nation’s pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu.