Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) can lead to cognitive, behavioural, and social-emotional challenges. Previous neuroimaging research has identified alterations to brain structure in newborns, older children, adolescents, and adults with PAE; however, little is known about brain structure in young children. Extensive brain development takes place during early childhood; therefore, understanding the neurological profiles of young children with PAE is critical for early identification and effective intervention. We studied 54 children (5.21 +/- 1.11 years; 27 males) with confirmed PAE compared to 54 age- and sex-matched children without PAE. Children underwent diffusion tensor imaging between 2 and 7 years of age. Mean fractional anisotropy (FA) and mean diffusivity (MD) were obtained for 10 major white matter tracts, along with tract volume, axial and radial diffusivity (AD, RD). A univariate analysis of covariance was conducted to test for group differences (PAE vs. control) controlling for age, sex and tract volume. Our results reveal white matter microstructural differences between young children with PAE and unexposed controls. The PAE group had higher FA and/or lower MD (as well as lower AD and RD) in the genu and the body of the corpus callosum, as well as the bilateral uncinate fasciculus and pyramidal tracts. Our findings align with studies of newborns with PAE finding lower AD, but contrast those in older populations with PAE, which consistently report lower FA and higher MD. These findings may reflect premature development of white matter that may then plateau too early, leading to the lower FA/higher MD observed at older ages.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience