Articles of Interest


The story about drinking while pregnant that got our newsroom talking

PBS News Hour
Nation Jul 23, 2018 5:33 PM EDT
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Fetal alcohol disorders are more common than you think
Jul 23, 2018 

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, a possible result from mothers drinking during pregnancy, has flown under the radar for decades. Now new conservative estimates published in The Journal of the American Medical Association show that anywhere from 1.1 to 5 percent of the U.S. population is affected, meaning it could be more common than autism. Amna Nawaz reports.

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New Prevalence Estimates of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Range From 1 to 5 Percent in U.S. Communities

Findings reflect a more comprehensive approach and larger sample size than previous studies

A study of more than 6,000 first-graders across 4 U.S. communities has found that a significant number of children have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), with conservative rates ranging from 1 to 5 percent in community samples. The new findings represent more accurate prevalence estimates of FASD than prior research. Previous FASD estimates were based on smaller study populations and did not reflect the overall U.S. population. 

The term FASD represents a range of health effects caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Individuals with FASD may experience growth deficiencies, facial abnormalities, and organ damage, including to the brain. The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the brain can result in deficits that contribute to physical, cognitive, behavioral, and social challenges throughout life.

“Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of developmental disabilities worldwide,” says NIAAA Director George F. Koob, Ph.D. “Estimating the prevalence of FASD in the United States has been complex due to the challenges in identifying prenatally exposed children. The findings of this study confirm that FASD is a significant public health problem, and strategies to expand screening, diagnosis, prevention, and treatment are needed to address it.” 

The study was conducted by the Collaboration on FASD Prevalence (CoFASP) consortium, which studies the prevalence of FASD among U.S. schoolchildren. Before the study began, consortium members established standardized classification criteria for FASD based on facial features, growth, and neurodevelopmental performance. The findings from the study, which was led by Philip May, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Nutrition Research Institute in Kannapolis, and Christina Chambers, Ph.D., of the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, were reported in JAMA in February.

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Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – The Global Impact

 05 February 2017
In the News /

A recent article in Medical News Today noted that worldwide, an estimated 119,000 children are born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) each year.

This data came to light as a result of a new study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) shows.

The study, published in The Lancet Global Health, provides the first-ever estimates of the proportion of women who drink during pregnancy, as well as estimates of FAS by country, World Health Organization (WHO) region and worldwide.

Globally, nearly 10 per cent of women drink alcohol during pregnancy, with wide variations by country and WHO region. In some countries, more than 45 per cent of women consume alcohol during pregnancy. In Canada, which has clinical guidelines advising abstinence during pregnancy, an estimated 10 per cent of pregnant women still drink, which is close to the estimated world average.

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He stumbled on a hidden epidemic of brain damage. The culprit? Alcohol

STAT Health
By Judith Graham
May 31, 2016

Dr. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist in Chicago, began sounding the alarm about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder four years ago.

CHICAGO — The agitated mom had three kids in foster care and she wanted them back. But she didn’t understand how to parent. She’d never worked. She had a short fuse. She was slow and didn’t seem to learn from experience.

Dr. Carl Bell studied the young woman. Flat cheeks. Thin upper lip. Folds at the corner of her eyes. It hit him like a thunderbolt: She had subtle features of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Bell had seen thousands of patients like this over the past 40 years and been baffled by their explosive tempers, poor social skills, spotty memories, trouble communicating, and learning disabilities.

Now, this psychiatrist realized their behavior might be explained by exposure to alcohol in the womb.

Bell had stumbled on a hidden epidemic of brain damage, concealed by shame and stigma, which affects up to 5 percent of Americans — and in poor communities, possibly far more.

The victims are often misdiagnosed with psychiatric disorders or antisocial tendencies. As kids, they’re stuck in special education classes. As adults, they often end up homeless or in jail. They’re deemed unruly, uncompliant, out of control.

Instead, they may have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, or FASD.

“No one realizes how common it actually is,” said Bell, 68, who is nationally known for his work exploring the impact of trauma on children in disadvantaged neighborhoods.

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Children with FASD have more severe behavioral problems than children with ADHD

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

  • Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) have a high risk of psychiatric problems, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Children with FASD are often initially diagnosed with ADHD.
  • A first-of-its-kind study shows that children with FASD have a distinct behavioural profile: significantly weaker social cognition and facial emotion-processing abilities than children with ADHD.
Children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) have a high risk of psychiatric problems, particularly attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, or both. Often children with FASD are initially diagnosed with ADHD. A new study is the first to examine a range of cognitive factors and social behavior in children with FASD and ADHD, finding that those with FASD have significantly weaker social cognition and facial emotion-processing abilities.

Results will be published in the October issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research and are currently available at Early View.

"Behaviorally, FASD and ADHD can look quite similar, particularly with respect to problems with very limited attention, physical restlessness, and extreme impulsivity," explained Rachel Greenbaum, a clinical psychologist with the Children's Mental Health Team at Surrey Place Centre in Toronto, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral dissertation.

"However, social deficits in children with neurodevelopmental disorders may have different underlying mechanisms," noted Piyadasa W. Kodituwakku, associate professor of pediatrics and neurosciences at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. "For example, children with ADHD experience social problems because of poor self-regulation rather than deficient knowledge of appropriate social behavior. In other words, a child with ADHD may accurately recite social rules, but fail to apply them. In contrast, social difficulties in a child with autism may result from a fundamental deficit in social sense, referred to as mind-blindness. Thus, when delineating qualitative differences in social phenotypes of neurodevelopmental disorders, it is important to assess not only observable behaviors, but also their underlying cognitive mechanisms."

This study looked specifically at social-cognition and emotion-processing abilities, said Joanne Rovet, a professor at the University of Toronto and senior scientist in neurosciences and mental health at the Hospital for Sick Children, and supervisor of the fetal alcohol research program.

"'Social cognition' refers to the ability to consider and differentiate between the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and intentions of oneself and others," said Rovet, who is also the study's corresponding author. "This involves understanding the meaning of social information and knowing how to interact appropriately. These abilities are important for communicating and relating successfully with others. 'Emotion processing' refers to understanding and processing information related to feelings. This includes the ability to recognize and differentiate between varied emotions in others and in oneself. These skills are also important for relating and communicating socially with other people."

Greenbaum and her colleagues recruited three groups of children - 33 (16 boys, 17 girls) with FASD, 30 (24 boys, 6 girls) with ADHD, and a "normal" control group of 34 (18 boys, 16 girls) - from a pre-existing data pool, clinics, communities, and schools in the greater Toronto area. The mean age was 9.2, 9.3 and 8.9 years, respectively. All completed tasks were designed to measure social cognition and emotion processing. Additionally, parents and teachers used standard questionnaires and scales to assess the children's behavioral problems and social skills.

"Our findings show that ... overall, children with FASD have more severe behavioral problems," said Rovet. "In terms of social cognition and emotional processing, the core deficit in FASD appears to be in understanding and interpreting another's mental states and emotions."

Rovet added that a "profile" of children with FASD would include items such as high distractibility and restlessness, as well as behaviors often described as "out of control" and juvenile. "Based on previous work from our lab, children and adolescents with FASD were more likely than children with ADHD to engage in antisocial behaviors, such as cheating, stealing and acting young, as well as sociopathic behaviors including lying and stealing," she said. "Importantly, the findings from our present study, specifically the significant differences in social cognition and emotional processing between children with FASD and ADHD, may underlie the severe conduct problems observed in children prenatally exposed to alcohol."

"In other words," said Kodituwakku, "children with FASD and ADHD have social difficulties, but what is contributing to these difficulties may be different. For example, a child with ADHD may be able to predict how another child would feel in a certain situation, but he or she may do something to hurt that child's feelings despite this ability. On the other hand, a child with FASD may do something to hurt someone else's feelings because of an inability to appreciate that person's reactions. This difference has implications for the development of social-skills training programs. That is, a training program designed for a child with ADHD may include procedures targeting how to translate what the child already knows into actions, while a program designed for a child with FASD may address both building specific cognitive skills and practicing appropriate actions."

"One of the major contributions of this study pertains to understanding what children with FASD look like from a truly clinical perspective," said Greenbaum, "helping to clarify for clinicians trying to diagnose and treat them the full extent and specific nature of their previously unidentified problems, thus extending treatment possibilities that may help alleviate some of their more debilitating antisocial and behavioral problems."

One finding with potential for immediate action was that children with FASD have difficulty interpreting social information, including emotions in faces, said Rovet. "These difficulties predict their behavior problems and are linked to their social development," she emphasized. "It is imperative that these children receive assistance in social and emotional processing domains, specifically targeting interventions to deal with their unique deficits."

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, "Social Cognitive and Emotion Processing Abilities of Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders: A Comparison with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," were: Rachel L. Greenbaum of the Children's Mental Health Team at Surrey Place Centre; Sara A. Stevens of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto and the Neuroscience and Mental Health Program at The Hospital for Sick Children; Kelly Nash of the Neuroscience and Mental Health Program at The Hospital for Sick Children and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto; Gideon Koren of the Motherisk Program, and the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto. The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. This release is supported by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center Network at

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