Research provides new hope for people with fetal alcohol syndrome

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New research by Professor Ann Streissguth of the University of Washington shows that people diagnosed with either fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or fetal alcohol effect (FAE) are more likely to escape social and relationship problems if they are diagnosed early in life and raised in a stable and nurturing environment.

In an article published in the Aug. 12 edition of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, Streissguth, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the UW School of Medicine, said that her study of 415 subjects showed that of all the factors that might positively or negatively affect a child with FAS or FAE, these two factors are most important in helping them escape negative experiences, including confinement for criminal violations and other reasons, trouble with the law, inappropriate sexual behavior, alcohol or drug problems and disrupted education.

“Our interviews with the caregivers of our study subjects, who ranged in age from 6 to 51 years, showed that the odds of escaping these adverse life experiences are improved two-to-four-fold by being diagnosed with FAS or FAE at an early age and by being raised in a good stable environment,” Streissguth said. “This is the first study to show that despite the prenatal brain damage caused by their mothers’ consumption of alcohol during pregnancy, these children can grow up to have relatively more successful lives.”

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a condition characterized by abnormal facial features, growth retardation, and central nervous system problems. It can occur if a woman drinks alcohol during pregnancy. Children with FAS may have physical disabilities and problems with learning, memory, attention, problem solving, and social/behavioral problems.

When a pregnant woman drinks alcohol, so does her unborn baby. There is no cure for Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Once the damage is done, it cannot be undone. However, FAS is the only cause of birth defects that can be completely prevented. Therefore, it is recommended that women abstain from drinking alcohol at any time during pregnancy. Women who are sexually active and do not use effective birth control should also refrain from drinking because they could become pregnant and not know for several weeks or more.

Streissguth and her colleagues designed a life history interview, which they administered with the caregivers or other knowledgeable informants about the life span experiences of 415 patients with FAS or FAE with a median IQ 86. From these interviews and previous clinical experience, the researchers designated five adverse life outcomes and 18 associated risk or protective factors in the environment that might influence these negative outcomes. For adolescents and adults, the life span prevalence was 61 per cent for disrupted school experiences, 60 percent for trouble with the law, 50 percent for confinement (in detention, jail, prison or a psychiatric or alcohol/drug inpatient treatment), 49 percent for inappropriate sexual behavior on repeated occasions and 35 percent for alcohol or drug problems.

“Unfortunately, many people feel that an FAS or FAE diagnosis is hopeless, and that maybe it’s better to just let these children grow up without knowing that they have this disability,” Streissguth noted. “In this study, we have done life history interviews on patients who were diagnosed in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. These two positive factors, living in a stable, nurturing environment and having an FAS or FAE diagnosis at an early age, are now documented for the first time as having a strong influence on what was previously assumed by many people to be an unchangeable situation.”


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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