The brain’s functional connectome in young children with prenatal alcohol exposure


• We used fMRI to study young children with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE)
• We measured the functional connectome and its stability within and across participants
• The PAE group had similar graph theory metrics to controls
• The PAE group, but not controls, had increasing intra-participant stability with age
• Controls, but not the PAE group, had increasing inter-participant stability with age


Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) can lead to altered brain function and structure, as well as lifelong cognitive, behavioural, and mental health difficulties. Previous research has shown reduced brain network efficiency in older children and adolescents with PAE, but no imaging studies have examined brain differences in young children with PAE, a time when cognitive and behavioural problems often first become apparent.

The present study aimed to investigate the brain’s functional connectome in young children with PAE using passive viewing fMRI. We analyzed 34 datasets from 26 children with PAE aged 2-7 years and 215 datasets from 87 unexposed typically-developing children in the same age range. The whole brain functional connectome was constructed using functional connectivity analysis across 90 regions for each dataset. We examined intra- and inter-participant stability of the functional connectome, graph theoretical measurements, and their correlations with age.

Children with PAE had similar inter- and intra-participant stability to controls. However, children with PAE, but not controls, showed increasing intra-participant stability with age, suggesting a lack of variability of intrinsic brain activity over time. Inter-participant stability increased with age in controls but not in children with PAE, indicating more variability of brain function across the PAE population. Global graph metrics were similar between children with PAE and controls, in line with previous studies in older children.

This study characterizes the functional connectome in young children with PAE for the first time, suggesting that the increased brain variability seen in older children develops early in childhood, when participants with PAE fail to show the expected age-related increases in inter-individual stability.

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