Roetner, J., Van Doren, J., Maschke, J. et al. Effects of prenatal alcohol exposition on cognitive outcomes in childhood and youth: a longitudinal analysis based on meconium ethyl glucuronide. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00406-023-01657-z
Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) has been linked to severe, adverse child outcomes. However, little is known regarding subclinical outcomes of low/moderate PAE and its longitudinal consequences, especially regarding neurophysiological and neurocognitive development. A newborn biomarker of PAE, meconium ethyl glucuronide (EtG), has been shown to predict cognitive impairments in primary-school-aged children. The current study investigated the ongoing effects of subclinical PAE in adolescence.
A sample of n = 96 mother–child dyads of the FRAMES/FRANCES cohort were classified into PAE/no PAE using EtG with a 10 ng/g cutoff. Mothers were recruited during pregnancy and children were assessed during primary-school age (M = 7.57, SD = 0.65, range: 6.00–9.92 years) and adolescence (M = 13.26, SD = 0.31, range: 12.79–14.20 years) on three levels: clinical (ADHD rating), neuropsychological (IQ score and performance in a go/nogo task), and neurophysiological (analysis of P3 event-related potentials (ERP) during said go/nogo task). Developmental outcomes and courses following PAE were assessed using rmANCOVAs, controlling for relevant confounders (socioeconomic status (SES), birth weight, and maternal psychopathology).
Neurophysiological impairments emerged for exposed children in the form of diminished attentional resource recruiting in childhood and adolescence (reduced go-P3 amplitudes) with no differences in performance. Neuropsychological testing showed a reduced IQ score for both time points with dose-dependent effects in childhood. Clinical ADHD symptoms were not significantly affected.
Subclinical PAE, as determined by meconium EtG, has negative developmental consequences on cognitive function that persist from childhood to adolescence. These findings suggest that there is no safe limit for alcohol consumption during pregnancy and that more thorough screening of alcohol consumption during pregnancy is necessary for early identification and treatment of at-risk children.