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Research Summary

Prenatal Exposure to Moderate Drinking Worsens Cognition in African Americans

Cognitive deficits from prenatal alcohol exposure have been well documented in children with fetal alcohol syndrome. Researchers in this study assessed whether such deficits could result from moderate exposure and persist throughout childhood. Women were interviewed during their pregnancy and later assessed, along with their children, at various intervals for 10 years (n=636 mother-child pairs). Cognitive ability was measured with the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test, and analyses were adjusted for relevant prenatal, psychosocial, and environmental variables.

  • During the first trimester, 62% of African American and 68% of white women drank. Most drinkers consumed <1 drink per day, though 37% of African American and 70% of white women who drank had a heavy drinking episode.*
  • Drinking decreased during pregnancy (e.g., 9% of African American and 11% of white drinkers had a heavy drinking episode in the second trimester).
  • Fetal alcohol exposure during the first and second trimesters significantly predicted cognitive deficits in short-term memory and verbal, visual, and quantitative reasoning in African American, but not white, children at age 10.
  • Exposure during the third trimester did not significantly affect cognitive ability.

Comments:

These findings indicate a significant relationship between prenatal alcohol exposure (generally to moderate amounts) and cognitive ability at age 10 among African American, but not white, offspring. This study does not, however, suggest that drinking during pregnancy is safe for white women. Physicians should counsel expectant mothers, particularly African Americans, about the risks of any alcohol use during pregnancy.

Joseph Conigliaro, MD, MPH

*Drank >=4 drinks on an occasion

Reference:

Willford JA, Leech SL, Day NL. Moderate prenatal alcohol exposure and cognitive status of children at age 10. Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2006;30(6):1051–1059.


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