Predicting Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Using Machine Learning Techniques: Multisite Retrospective Cohort Study

Oh S, Kuang I, Jeong H, Song J, Ren B, Moon J, Park E, Kawachi I
Predicting Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Using Machine Learning Techniques: Multisite Retrospective Cohort Study
J Med Internet Res 2023;25:e45041
DOI: 10.2196/45041



Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) is a lifelong developmental disability that occurs among individuals with prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). With improved prediction models, FAS can be diagnosed or treated early, if not completely prevented.


In this study, we sought to compare different machine learning algorithms and their FAS predictive performance among women who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. We also aimed to identify which variables (eg, timing of exposure to alcohol during pregnancy and type of alcohol consumed) were most influential in generating an accurate model.


Data from the collaborative initiative on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from 2007 to 2017 were used to gather information about 595 women who consumed alcohol during pregnancy at 5 hospital sites around the United States. To obtain information about PAE, questionnaires or in-person interviews, as well as reviews of medical, legal, or social service records were used to gather information about alcohol consumption. Four different machine learning algorithms (logistic regression, XGBoost, light gradient-boosting machine, and CatBoost) were trained to predict the prevalence of FAS at birth, and model performance was measured by analyzing the area under the receiver operating characteristics curve (AUROC). Of the total cases, 80% were randomly selected for training, while 20% remained as test data sets for predicting FAS. Feature importance was also analyzed using Shapley values for the best-performing algorithm.


Overall, there were 20 cases of FAS within a total population of 595 individuals with PAE. Most of the drinking occurred in the first trimester only (n=491) or throughout all 3 trimesters (n=95); however, there were also reports of drinking in the first and second trimesters only (n=8), and 1 case of drinking in the third trimester only (n=1). The CatBoost method delivered the best performance in terms of AUROC (0.92) and area under the precision-recall curve (AUPRC 0.51), followed by the logistic regression method (AUROC 0.90; AUPRC 0.59), the light gradient-boosting machine (AUROC 0.89; AUPRC 0.52), and XGBoost (AUROC 0.86; AURPC 0.45). Shapley values in the CatBoost model revealed that 12 variables were considered important in FAS prediction, with drinking throughout all 3 trimesters of pregnancy, maternal age, race, and type of alcoholic beverage consumed (eg, beer, wine, or liquor) scoring highly in overall feature importance. For most predictive measures, the best performance was obtained by the CatBoost algorithm, with an AUROC of 0.92, precision of 0.50, specificity of 0.29, F1 score of 0.29, and accuracy of 0.96.


Machine learning algorithms were able to identify FAS risk with a prediction performance higher than that of previous models among pregnant drinkers. For small training sets, which are common with FAS, boosting mechanisms like CatBoost may help alleviate certain problems associated with data imbalances and difficulties in optimization or generalization.

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