Canadian researchers have identified several specific white matter regions and deep grey matter regions in the brain that seem to be sensitive to prenatal alcohol exposure.
This advance results from a study from the University of Alberta, which has been reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.
Experts at the university have revealed that they involved diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) in their study.
"White matter tracts are bundles of axons that form connections between different parts of the brain," said Christian Beaulieu, associate professor in the department of biomedical engineering at the University of Alberta and corresponding author for the study.
"Highly interconnected deep gray matter structures, such as the basal ganglia and the thalamus, act as relay stations to integrate incoming sensory and motor input before it passes to the cortex; they also play a role in relaying cortical output. Both white matter tracts and deep gray matter structures are essential to the rapid communication and integration of information within the brain," he said.
Carmen Rasmussen, an assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the university, said that it was already known that the corpus callosum-a major white matter tract connecting the left and right hemispheres of the brain-is affected in Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD).
"Abnormalities can vary from complete to more subtle malformations but, overall, brain white-matter volume is reduced in FASD, especially in the temporal and parietal lobes. Deep gray matter structures are also known to be smaller in individuals with FASD, and have decreased metabolic rates and abnormal metabolite ratios compared to those in children without FASD," she said.
During the study, the researchers examined 13 boys and 11 girls aged five to 13, previously diagnosed with FASD. They also examined 50 healthy boys and 45 healthy girls from the same age range.
Diffusion tractography was used to delineate 10 major white matter tracts in each individual, and region-of-interest analysis was used to assess four deep grey matter structures.
The researchers also assessed an indicator of white matter integrity called "fractional anisotropy", and a measure of average water diffusion called "mean diffusivity", in all 14 brain structures.
"DTI is an advanced MRI technique that uses the properties of water diffusion within the brain to obtain information about fine brain structure," said Catherine Lebel, a doctoral student in the department of biomedical engineering working on the project.
"If cell membranes and other tissue structures are degraded or malformed for some reason, then the water runs into less obstructions and the water travels further in the tissue, which can be measured with DTI. Tractography uses DTI data to virtually reconstruct white matter pathways through the brain, allowing for visualization and analysis of specific white matter tracts that are critical for various cognitive functions. Previous DTI did not use tractography to delineate individual white matter tracts, and none looked at deep gray matter structures," the researcher added.
The researchers said that their study showed that diffusion abnormalities in FASD went far beyond the corpus callosum region of the brain.
"We found widespread diffusion abnormalities in the brains of children with FASD. We showed diffusion differences in the corpus callosum, which is in agreement with previous studies, but we also showed changes in many other white and deep gray matter structures that have not been previously reported.
The white matter connections that seemed to be particularly affected were the corpus callosum and tracts connecting to the temporal lobe. Our study supports the notion that widespread abnormalities exist in the brain due to alcohol exposure while the child is in the womb," said Lebel.
The researcher believes that brain-diffusion abnormalities not previously found or reported may be widespread.
"Our results suggest that damage caused by prenatal alcohol exposure is very widespread and affects many regions of the brain. Furthermore, the differences between children with FASD and controls were present across our age range, from five to 13 years of age. Finally, our findings on volume reductions and differences in the corpus callosum confirm previously reported differences, thereby supporting prior research on brain abnormalities amongst FASD populations," Lebel said.
The results, said Beaulieu, may lead to a greater understanding of the relationship between the structural abnormalities and functional deficits that are associated with FASD, and consequently help identify earlier and effectively treat and manage the condition.