Imaging the impact of prenatal alcohol exposure on the structure of the developing human brain

Neuropsychol Rev. 2011 Jun;21(2):102-18. doi: 10.1007/s11065-011-9163-0. Epub 2011 Mar 3.


Prenatal alcohol exposure has numerous effects on the developing brain, including damage to selective brain structure. We review structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies of brain abnormalities in subjects prenatally exposed to alcohol. The most common findings include reduced brain volume and malformations of the corpus callosum. Advanced methods have been able to detect shape, thickness and displacement changes throughout multiple brain regions. The teratogenic effects of alcohol appear to be widespread, affecting almost the entire brain. The only region that appears to be relatively spared is the occipital lobe. More recent studies have linked cognition to the underlying brain structure in alcohol-exposed subjects, and several report patterns in the severity of brain damage as it relates to facial dysmorphology or to extent of alcohol exposure. Future studies exploring relationships between brain structure, cognitive measures, dysmorphology, age, and other variables will be valuable for further comprehending the vast effects of prenatal alcohol exposure and for evaluating possible interventions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohols / adverse effects*
  • Behavioral Symptoms / etiology
  • Behavioral Symptoms / pathology
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Developmental Disabilities / complications
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology
  • Developmental Disabilities / pathology
  • Facial Asymmetry
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*


  • Alcohols