Neurobehavioral Deficits Consistent Across Age and Sex in Youth with Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2016 Sep;40(9):1971-81. doi: 10.1111/acer.13153. Epub 2016 Jul 19.


Background: Neurobehavioral consequences of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure are well documented; however, the role of age or sex in these effects has not been studied. The current study examined the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, sex, and age on neurobehavioral functioning in children.

Methods: Subjects were 407 youth with prenatal alcohol exposure (n = 192) and controls (n = 215). Two age groups (child [5 to 7 years] or adolescent [10 to 16 years]) and both sexes were included. All subjects completed standardized neuropsychological testing, and caregivers completed parent-report measures of psychopathology and adaptive behavior. Neuropsychological functioning, psychopathology, and adaptive behavior were analyzed with separate 2 (exposure history) × 2 (sex) × 2 (age) multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVAs). Significant effects were followed by univariate analyses.

Results: No 3-way or 2-way interactions were significant. The main effect of group was significant in all 3 MANOVAs, with the control group performing better than the alcohol-exposed group on all measures. The main effect of age was significant for neuropsychological performance and adaptive functioning across exposure groups with younger children performing better than older children on 3 measures (language, communication, socialization). Older children performed better than younger children on a different language measure. The main effect of sex was significant for neuropsychological performance and psychopathology; across exposure groups, males had stronger language and visual spatial scores and fewer somatic complaints than females.

Conclusions: Prenatal alcohol exposure resulted in impaired neuropsychological and behavioral functioning. Although adolescents with prenatal alcohol exposure may perform more poorly than younger exposed children, the same was true for nonexposed children. Thus, these cross-sectional data indicate that the developmental trajectory for neuropsychological and behavioral performance is not altered by prenatal alcohol exposure, but rather, deficits are consistent across the 2 age groups tested. Similarly, observed sex differences on specific measures were consistent across the groups and do not support sexually dimorphic effects in these domains.

Keywords: Age; Behavior; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders; Neuropsychological Function; Sex.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / psychology*
  • Age Factors
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Alcohol Drinking / epidemiology
  • Alcohol Drinking / psychology*
  • Child
  • Child Behavior Disorders / diagnosis
  • Child Behavior Disorders / epidemiology
  • Child Behavior Disorders / psychology*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnosis
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Sex Factors
  • Single-Blind Method