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Neuroimaging effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing human brain: a magnetic resonance imaging review

  • Kirsten Ann Donald (a1), Emma Eastman (a1), Fleur Margaret Howells (a2), Colleen Adnams (a2), Edward Patrick Riley (a3), Roger Paul Woods (a4), Katherine Louise Narr (a4) and Dan Joseph Stein (a2)...

This paper reviews the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) literature on the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on the developing human brain.


A literature search was conducted through the following databases: PubMed, PsycINFO and Google Scholar. Combinations of the following search terms and keywords were used to identify relevant studies: ‘alcohol’, ‘fetal alcohol spectrum disorders’, ‘fetal alcohol syndrome’, ‘FAS’, ‘FASD’, ‘MRI’, ‘DTI’, ‘MRS’, ‘neuroimaging’, ‘children’ and ‘infants’.


A total of 64 relevant articles were identified across all modalities. Overall, studies reported smaller total brain volume as well as smaller volume of both the white and grey matter in specific cortical regions. The most consistently reported structural MRI findings were alterations in the shape and volume of the corpus callosum, as well as smaller volume in the basal ganglia and hippocampi. The most consistent finding from diffusion tensor imaging studies was lower fractional anisotropy in the corpus callosum. Proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies are few to date, but showed altered neurometabolic profiles in the frontal and parietal cortex, thalamus and dentate nuclei. Resting-state functional MRI studies reported reduced functional connectivity between cortical and deep grey matter structures.


There is a critical gap in the literature of MRI studies in alcohol-exposed children under 5 years of age across all MRI modalities. The dynamic nature of brain maturation and appreciation of the effects of alcohol exposure on the developing trajectory of the structural and functional network argue for the prioritisation of studies that include a longitudinal approach to understanding this spectrum of effects and potential therapeutic time points.

Corresponding author
Kirsten Ann Donald, Division of Developmental Paeditrics, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. Tel: +27 21 658 5535 Fax: +27 21 658 5530 E-mail:
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