Combined Face-Brain Morphology and Associated Neurocognitive Correlates in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2018 Sep;42(9):1769-1782. doi: 10.1111/acer.13820. Epub 2018 Jul 20.


Background: Since the 1970s, a range of facial, neurostructural, and neurocognitive adverse effects have been shown to be associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. Typically, these effects are studied individually and not in combination. Our objective is to improve the understanding of the teratogenic effects of prenatal alcohol exposure by simultaneously considering face-brain morphology and neurocognitive measures.

Methods: Participants were categorized as control (n = 47), fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS, n = 22), or heavily exposed (HE) prenatally, but not eligible for a FAS diagnosis (HE, n = 50). Structural brain MRI images and high-resolution 3D facial images were analyzed using dense surface models of features of the face and surface shape of the corpus callosum (CC) and caudate nucleus (CN). Asymmetry of the CN was evaluated for correlations with neurocognitive measures.

Results: (i) Facial growth delineations for FAS, HE, and controls are replicated for the CN and the CC. (ii) Concordance of clinical diagnosis and face-based control-FAS discrimination improves when the latter is combined with specific brain regions. In particular, midline facial regions discriminate better when combined with a midsagittal profile of the CC. (iii) A subset of HE individuals was identified with FAS-like CN dysmorphism. The average of this HE subset was FAS-like in its facial dysmorphism. (iv) Right-left asymmetry found in the CNs of controls is not apparent for FAS, is diminished for HE, and correlates with neurocognitive measures in the combined FAS and HE population.

Conclusions: Shape analysis which combines facial regions with the CN, and with the CC, better identify those with FAS. CN asymmetry was reduced for FAS compared to controls and is strongly associated with general cognitive ability, verbal learning, and recall in those with prenatal alcohol exposure. This study further extends the brain-behavior relationships known to be vulnerable to alcohol teratogenesis.

Keywords: 3D Facial Analysis; Caudate Nucleus; Corpus Callosum; Facial Dysmorphism; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects*
  • Alcohol Drinking / trends
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging*
  • Child
  • Face / diagnostic imaging*
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / diagnostic imaging*
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / etiology
  • Humans
  • Imaging, Three-Dimensional / methods*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / etiology