Executive functioning in children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 1999 Nov;23(11):1808-15.


Background: Children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure have well documented deficits in overall cognitive ability. Recently, attention has turned to the executive function (EF) domain in this population. Until recently, comprehensive measures of EF have not been available within one test battery. This study used a battery of tests to assess four domains of EF in alcohol-exposed children.

Methods: The Delis-Kaplan Executive Function Scale was used to evaluate EF in 18 children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure, with and without a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), and 10 nonexposed controls. Children ranged in age from 8 to 15 years. Measures from four domains of executive functioning were analyzed: planning ability, cognitive flexibility, selective inhibition, and concept formation and reasoning. Tasks consisted of primary EF measures as well as measures of secondary component skills.

Results: Alcohol-exposed children were deficient on EF measures compared with nonexposed controls. Furthermore, in most cases, children with and without the FAS diagnosis did not differ from one another. These deficits were not entirely explainable by concomitant deficits on component skills. Specific impairments were identified within the domains of planning and response inhibition, with additional deficits in abstract thinking and flexibility.

Conclusions: Deficits in executive functioning were observed in alcohol-exposed children with or without the diagnosis of FAS and in the absence of mental retardation. Performance on these EF tasks provides insight into the cognitive processes driving overall performance and has implications for adaptive and daily functions. These results are consistent with anecdotal and empirical reports of deficits in behavioral control and with neuroanatomical evidence of volumetric reductions in structures within the frontal-subcortical system in children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / administration & dosage*
  • Child
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Ethanol / administration & dosage*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Trail Making Test / statistics & numerical data*


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol