Prenatal alcohol exposure has been linked to a broad range of developmental deficits, with eyeblink classical conditioning (EBC) among the most sensitive endpoints. This fMRI study compared EBC-related brain activity in 47 children with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), partial FAS (PFAS), heavily exposed (HE) non-syndromal children, and healthy controls. All of the children had previously participated in two EBC studies conducted as part of our longitudinal study of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Although learning-related behavioral differences were seen in all groups during the scans, controls showed more conditioned responses (CR) than the alcohol-exposed groups. Despite lower conditioning levels relative to controls, the exposed groups exhibited extensive cerebellar activations. Specifically, children with FAS/PFAS showed increased activation of cerebellar lobule VI in session 2, while HE children showed increased activation in session 1. Continuous measures of prenatal alcohol use correlated with learning-related activations in cerebellum and frontal cortices. Only controls showed significant cerebellar activation—CR correlations in the deep nuclei and lateral lobule VI, suggesting that these key regions supporting EBC may be functionally disorganized in alcohol-exposed children. These findings are the first to characterize abnormalities in brain function associated with the behavioral conditioning deficits seen in children with prenatal alcohol exposure.

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