In utero MRI identifies consequences of early-gestation alcohol drinking on fetal brain development in rhesus macaques

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 May 5;117(18):10035-10044. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1919048117. Epub 2020 Apr 20.


One factor that contributes to the high prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is binge-like consumption of alcohol before pregnancy awareness. It is known that treatments are more effective with early recognition of FASD. Recent advances in retrospective motion correction for the reconstruction of three-dimensional (3D) fetal brain MRI have led to significant improvements in the quality and resolution of anatomical and diffusion MRI of the fetal brain. Here, a rhesus macaque model of FASD, involving oral self-administration of 1.5 g/kg ethanol per day beginning prior to pregnancy and extending through the first 60 d of a 168-d gestational term, was utilized to determine whether fetal MRI could detect alcohol-induced abnormalities in brain development. This approach revealed differences between ethanol-exposed and control fetuses at gestation day 135 (G135), but not G110 or G85. At G135, ethanol-exposed fetuses had reduced brainstem and cerebellum volume and water diffusion anisotropy in several white matter tracts, compared to controls. Ex vivo electrophysiological recordings performed on fetal brain tissue obtained immediately following MRI demonstrated that the structural abnormalities observed at G135 are of functional significance. Specifically, spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic current amplitudes measured from individual neurons in the primary somatosensory cortex and putamen strongly correlated with diffusion anisotropy in the white matter tracts that connect these structures. These findings demonstrate that exposure to ethanol early in gestation perturbs development of brain regions associated with motor control in a manner that is detectable with fetal MRI.

Keywords: FASD; cerebellum; diffusion MRI; nonhuman primate; white matter.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking / physiopathology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Ethanol / toxicity
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / diagnostic imaging
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Fetus / diagnostic imaging
  • Fetus / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Retrospective Studies


  • Ethanol