Background: A broad range of attentional and neuropsychological impairments have been demonstrated in children with fetal alcohol exposure. This study was designed to investigate which specific aspects of attentional function are most directly affected by moderate to heavy doses of prenatal alcohol exposure.
Methods: A total of 337 black children who were aged 7.5 years and recruited prospectively to overrepresent prenatal alcohol exposure at moderate to heavy levels were assessed on a diverse battery of neuropsychological tests. Principal components analyses were used to replicate and extend Mirsky et al.'s (1991) four-component model of attention. The relation of prenatal alcohol exposure to empirically derived attentional constructs was examined.
Results: Both the replicated and the extended attentional models produced solutions similar to the original Mirsky et al. model, reflecting elements of encode (working memory), shift, and focused and sustained attention, as well as a distinct component reflecting impulsivity. Adverse effects of maternal drinking across pregnancy were found primarily for working memory, and these effects were exacerbated when mothers were aged 30 or older at the time of the child's birth.
Conclusions: These data confirm previous studies using diverse methods that suggest that working memory may be the most important aspect of attention that is adversely affected by prenatal alcohol exposure.