Effects of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

General information

Fatal alcohol spectrum disorder has been thought of as a continuum of persistent effects acquired during birth as a result of the mother consuming alcohol during pregnancy. This problem is at the forefront causing mental retardation. For that matter, both behavioural and neurological issues linked to prenatal alcohol intake usually lead to poor academic performance, achievement, and legal, as well as securing employment. Although all relevant stakeholders have tried their best in raising public awareness, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of women taking alcohol during pregnancy. It is worth noting that four major characteristics define FASD, these are; maternal taking alcohol during pregnancy, retardation in growth, characteristic facial deformities, and brain damage usually characterized by problems in academics as well as behavioural problems (Smith, 1981).

Causes of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and mechanism of action

It is worth noting that this problem or disorder is not hereditary. It is caused by excessive consumption of alcohol during pregnancy eventually damages the neurons as well as loss of cells in the foetal brain via direct action of the toxin. Moreover, there is no prenatal period that has been depicted to be safe from the adverse effects of alcoholism. The central nervous system is usually damaged by alcohol during any of the trimesters; for this reason, women should stop taking alcohol from conception to delivery (West, 1986).

Even though FAS is not hereditary, scientists have established that there is a genetic predisposition to alcoholism. It has been found out that for instance in some native Americans the shared alleles of the gene that constitute alcohol dehydrogenase might play a major role in making an individual experience an increased risk of taking alcohol. It is thus very clear that FAS affects the cerebellum of human beings. This part of the brain is bestowed with the task of coordinating movement as well as forms of learning (Smith, 1981).

Statistics show that about 1.0% of children suffer from FASD. For instance, a survey carried out in South African involving 992 students aged between 5 and 9 established that there were over 40 cases of FASD cases per 1000 births.

It will be rational to give an overview of the alcohol mechanism of action. Ideally, alcohol penetrates the placenta and finds its way to the circulatory system of the foetus leading to previously mentioned abnormalities. Alcohol contains ethanol which interferes with blood flow as it constricts the vessels carrying blood resulting in hypoxia as well as malnutrition (West, 1986). It is worth noting that the damage is dependent on the amount of alcohol consumed, time of intake, and how chronic an individual abuse it. It is proposed that ethanol leads to dysfunction of mitochondria, interfering with neural crest cell migration, death of cells, and negative impact on the growth of neurotransmitters systems among others. All these are yet to be proved by researchers. In 2002 researchers from Harvard established that alcohol damages L1 adhesion molecules which are vital in cell cohesion processes.

The major characteristics or symptoms of FASD include attention deficit, poor judgment and impulse control, inability to manage money, hypersensitivity, memory lapses, and poor strategies to solving problems, immature social behaviours, and lack of control over emotions. Other physiological characteristics include babies born underweight, small head circumference, flat midface, thin upper lip, short upturned nose, small widely spaced eyes, and smooth wide philtrum.

Cognitive and behavioural alterations

Researchers in this field have concluded that there is no agreed amount of alcohol that will trigger social, cognitive, or behavioural problems in children when their mothers drink when they are pregnant. For this reason, there is a need to understand that there are certain neurobehavioral functions that are adversely affected. Researchers advised that certain parts of neurobehavioral functions are spared and this gives individuals diagnosed with FASD hope (West, 1986).

One major problem linked to prenatal exposure to alcohol to children is with regards to verbal learning. It has been established that these groups of children do show several problems or issues regarding language and memory. For instance, children between the ages of 5 and 16 compared to their counterparts not exposed to alcohol learn fewer words. However, the two groups clearly depicted the ability to equally recall things they learned in the past. The finding implies that the problem of learning as a result of FASD is experienced during the first stages of forming memories and it goes without saying that once memory is formed there are higher chances of retaining verbal information usually subject to how fast one can forget.

Similarly, FASD children have been shown to suffer from attention, distraction, and impulsive behaviour problems. For instance, using the AX- task where a child is behind a computer screen that flashes one letter after one second was tasked with pushing a button once a letter appears. The calculation of errors led to the conclusion that those children exposed to a higher level of alcohol had more errors. On the same note, distraction was tested and it was found out that there was an 8.0% distraction rate for children exposed to between 0-3 drinks, the same rose to 14.0% and 46.0% for those children whose mothers took 3 to 4 drinks and over 4 drinks per day in that order (Ratey, 2001). Thus, mothers who drink alcohol give birth to children having attention and reaction problems. Another study regarding reaction found out that children exposed to alcohol exhibit slower and less efficient information processing. These children do show a slower rate of eye movement.

Additionally, Ratey, (2001) suggested that children born of alcoholic mothers have serious problems when it comes to those activities that need abstract thinking which include how well to plan and organize. It has been found out that children prenatally exposed to alcohol have a poor response when they are in class and are demanded to switch from one activity to another. For instance, when asked to name animals then switch to furniture then back to animals, they take longer to do this compared to their counterparts who were born to mothers who did not drink during pregnancy. Children who have been exposed to alcohol are in trouble since they cannot quickly leave strategies that are considered ineffective when solving problems.

Another behavioural effect of exposing children to alcohol during pregnancy is the risk of having children considered to be ‘out of control’. There are higher chances of FASD children engaging in antisocial behaviours for instance being cheaters, thieves as well as acting young. Those children who suffer from FASD experience problems in emotion processing. For instance, they are not capable of interpreting the facial expression of others (Smith, 1981).

Concerning visual-spatial learning, children from mothers who drink alcohol during pregnancy perform poorly. From a study involving both normal and FASD children, both were equal in their ability to recall certain households as well as school items placed on a table and then taken away. Interestingly, those children suffering from FASD found it challenging to replace the items or objects to their initial places or positions.

Treating and preventing FASD

It is worth noting that there is no treatment for defects linked to alcohol. However, it is possible to carry out surgery to repair certain physical problems. Similarly, there are programs aimed at improving both the mental and physical development of children suffering from FASD. Prevention is better than cure. For that matter effort to educate the general public especially the young generation concerning the deleterious effects of alcoholism during pregnancy will help curb the problem. Similarly, there is a need to have in place a mechanism to screen as well as intervene early for those women who are at the age of childbearing and are at risk of giving birth to FASD child (Smith, 1981). Lastly, a tertiary program that entails plans to diagnose and develop strategies to curb the problem for both the child suffering from FASD as well as his or her parents will help in addressing the problem especially if the couples are planning to have more children (West, 1986).

Generally, it is worth noting that to point out those women who drink alcohol early enough and to offer them adequate counselling is very vital as a preventive mechanism. Additionally, it is important to remember that primary care providers of children affected by FASD opt to be help parents as well as caregivers clearly comprehend and acknowledge the reality of their situations of the child, not to be judgemental and build a workable alliance with the parents as well as caregivers in which their weak sides and strengths are nurtured. Similarly, care providers need to be a step ahead in research regarding the treatment of FASD and be in a position to adopt the best strategies (Ratey, 2001).


More than never before, FASD has been seen to be a serious disorder in the current century. It is as a result of mothers taking alcohol during pregnancy that ultimately leads to a series of complications for their offspring. The disorder affects about 1.0% of all the children in the world. Major characteristics include attention deficit, poor judgment and impulse control, inability to manage money, hypersensitivity, memory lapses, and poor strategies to solving problems, immature social behaviours, and lack of control over emotions among others. The disorder mainly affects the cerebellum part of the brain bestowed with the task of coordinating movement as well as forms of learning.

FASD has been shown to result in very serious behavioural as well as cognitive problems. Among the behavioural problems include memory lapses/poor memory, higher rates of distractions, poor attention, inability to understand emotions from others as well as exhibiting out-of-control behaviours such as cheating and stealing. It is worth noting that there is a dose of alcohol that can be recommended for pregnant women as any amount can lead to serious consequences. Lastly, FASD effects are permanent and some impairments can be corrected through surgery. However, prevention mechanisms are better than treatment.


  1. Ratey, J. (2001). A user’s guide to the brain: Perception, attention, and the four theaters of the brain. New York: Vintage Books.
  2. Smith, D. (1981). Fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effects. Neurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology 3(2): 127-132.
  3. West, J. (1986). Alcohol and brain development. New York: Oxford University Press.