When a pregnant woman consumes alcohol, she exposes not only herself but her developing baby to its detrimental effects. For the future child, this creates a risk of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), a completely preventable condition that nevertheless affects 3-5% of the population in the United States and worldwide.
Prenatal alcohol exposure (AE) leads to significant perturbations of brain anatomy, connectivity and persisting cognitive deficits such as problems with "executive function," that include complex planning, decision making, self-control, and working to achieve goals. Recent research has demonstrated that intact communication between three memory-related areas of the brain – prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and midline thalamic nucleus Reuniens – is essential for successful execution of such planning and control.
The highly competitive two-year grant, awarded by the NIH's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and totaling $275,000, was recently awarded to a team of researchers led by Dr. Anna Klintsova, professor in the Behavioral Neuroscience area of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
The research team in Klintsova lab hypothesized that the deficit in executive function resulting from developmental alcohol exposure could stem from the damage to the nucleus Reuniens. Such damage, the team suggests, would lead to insufficient connectivity and faulty communication between neurons in the 3-structure circuitry (Prefrontal cortex, hippocampus, and Reuniens). When neurons in these structures can't communicate well, the brain has difficulty with complex thoughts and behaviors, like executive functioning. Using an animal model, Zachary Gursky, a graduate researcher in the Klintsova lab, has already demonstrated that exposure of the developing brain to alcohol during the equivalent of the third trimester resulted in highly significant loss of neurons in the Reunies and that this loss persists into adulthood (and highly likely – through the entire lifespan).
The next stage of this project will look at the connectivity between prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and Reuniens using specific labeling of the neurons and their projections that will allow to distinguish connections based on their origin. This method will also provide evidence for gross anatomical damage across the brain that may contribute to the observed cognitive impairments of individuals with FASD. Finally, the possibility of reversing the alcohol-caused impairments via behavioral therapy will be evaluated.
In humans, impaired executive function can translate to poor judgement, inability to stick to a plan and make appropriate decisions. Unfortunately, individuals with FASD have been shown to have a higher rate of arrest and incarceration, with about 50% of people with FASD facing legal trouble at some point. Thus, improving our understanding of alcohol-induced brain damage and finding the ways to ameliorate it post factum, after the baby is born is a very important health priority. This effort is equally as important to help individuals diagnosed with FASD, to help those that have already been affected by this, and those that are yet to be affected.