Effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the hippocampus: spatial behavior, electrophysiology, and neuroanatomy

Hippocampus. 2000;10(1):94-110. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1098-1063(2000)10:1<94::AID-HIPO11>3.0.CO;2-T.


Prenatal exposure to alcohol can result in fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), characterized by growth retardation, facial dysmorphologies, and a host of neurobehavioral impairments. Neurobehavioral effects in FAS, and in alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, include poor learning and memory, attentional deficits, and motor dysfunction. Many of these behavioral deficits can be modeled in rodents. This paper reviews the literature suggesting that many fetal alcohol effects result, at least in part, from teratogenic effects of alcohol on the hippocampus. Neurobehavioral studies show that animals exposed prenatally to alcohol are impaired in many of the same spatial learning and memory tasks sensitive to hippocampal damage, including T-mazes, the Morris water maze, and the radial arm maze. Direct evidence for hippocampal involvement is provided by neuroanatomical studies of the hippocampus documenting reduced numbers of neurons, lower dendritic spine density on pyramidal neurons, and decreased morphological plasticity after environmental enrichment in rats exposed prenatally to alcohol. Electrophysiological studies also demonstrate changes in synaptic activity in in vitro hippocampal brain slices isolated from prenatal alcohol-exposed animals. Considered together, these observations demonstrate that prenatal exposure to alcohol can result in abnormal hippocampal development and function. Such studies provide a better understanding of neurological deficits associated with FAS in humans, and may also contribute to the development of strategies to ameliorate the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on behavior.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / adverse effects*
  • Electrophysiology
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology
  • Hippocampus / anatomy & histology
  • Hippocampus / drug effects*
  • Hippocampus / physiology
  • Maze Learning / drug effects
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Space Perception / drug effects*


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol