Characterizing Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder: Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Spectrum of Outcomes

Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2020 Jun;44(6):1245-1260. doi: 10.1111/acer.14325. Epub 2020 May 20.


Background: The effects of prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) are conceptualized as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) as the most severe. Many find it more difficult to characterize behavioral and cognitive effects of exposure on the central nervous system when physical signs are not present. In the current study, an operational definition of alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND) was examined to determine its usefulness in discrimination of children classified as ARND based on behavior (ARND/B) and cognition (ARND/C) from children in 4 contrast groups: (i) children exposed to study-defined "risky drinking"; (ii) children with any reported PAE; (iii) children classified as "Higher Risk" for developmental problems; and (iv) children classified as "Lower Risk."

Methods: A total of 1,842 children seen as part of a surveillance study (J Am Med Assoc, 319, 2018, 474) were evaluated for alcohol exposure and physical characteristics of FAS, and completed neurodevelopmental testing. Ninety-one were identified as either ARND/B or ARND/C and contrasted with other groups to further identify distinguishing patterns. Multinomial logistic regression (MLR) was used to examine the accuracy of classification and to identify factors contributing to such classification.

Results: Children described as ARND/C were distinct from other groups based on cognition and behavior as well as demographic factors (e.g., age, race, SES), child characteristics (e.g., gestational age; sex), and other drug exposures, while those described as ARND/B differed only on behavior and other drug exposures. MLR models successfully discriminated ARND groups from children in other groups with accuracy ranging from 79% (Higher Risk) to 86.7% (Low Risk).

Conclusions: ARND has been a subject of debate. This analysis suggests the effects of alcohol on behavior and cognition even in the absence of the characteristic facial features and growth deficiency that can be identified. The results also indicate that it may be possible to distinguish such children from those in other high-risk groups.

Keywords: Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorder; Diagnosis; Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders; Prenatal Alcohol Exposure.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Disruptive, Impulse Control, and Conduct Disorders / psychology
  • Executive Function / physiology
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / epidemiology
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / psychology
  • Gestational Age
  • Humans
  • Intellectual Disability / physiopathology
  • Learning Disabilities / physiopathology
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Memory Disorders / physiopathology
  • Mood Disorders / psychology
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology
  • Problem Behavior / psychology
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Social Class