Direct and indirect effects of prenatal alcohol damage on executive function

Dev Neuropsychol. 2000;18(3):331-54. doi: 10.1207/S1532694204Connor.


Patients with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and Fetal Alcohol Effects (FAE) often have difficulty functioning appropriately in everyday life and seem to employ poor problem-solving strategies. Tests of executive function are relevant for quantifying the functional deficits and underlying real-life problems associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. This study considers two pathways for the effects of prenatal alcohol on executive function: a direct effect and an indirect effect through prenatal alcohol's effect on IQ. We compared 30 men who had been diagnosed with FAS or FAE with young adults participating in a longitudinal prospective study (n = 419) and 15 control participants that comprised a comparison group. This study is unique in its analysis of the same battery of assessments of executive function in both a large low dose longitudinal study sample and a clinically diagnosed group. Participants were evaluated on 9 tests (including 58 scores) of executive function. For some but not all of the tests in this executive function battery, the decrement in the alcohol exposure group is greater than would be predicted from their IQ scores. We found that 3 of 6 Stroop scores, 2 of 4 Trails scores, 9 of 16 Wisconsin Card Sorting scores, 1 of 2 Ruff's Figural Fluency scores, and 2 of 4 Consonant Trigrams scores appear to be particularly sensitive to the direct effects of prenatal alcohol damage for patients with FAS and FAE. The findings suggest that these executive function tests would be particularly useful in clinical evaluations of persons suspected of fetal alcohol damage because they would not simply reflect deficits in IQ or facial stigmata.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / adverse effects*
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Facies
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intelligence / drug effects*
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests*
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Prospective Studies


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Ethanol