Alcohol and pregnancy are a dangerous mix. The physical effects of alcohol on a developing foetus are well known and potentially devastating. It is known to impact physical development – causing stunted growth, craniofacial abnormalities, reduced head and brain size, sight and hearing problems, and limb and organ defects. Foetal alcohol exposure causes problems in cognitive and psychological functions such as learning, speech and language, memory, attention, inhibition, social cognition, planning, motor skills, attachment, and behaviour. The name given to the range of outcomes caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol is foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Double jeopardy: adding childhood neglect
Children who are exposed to alcohol prenatally are also at risk of what has been described as a case of double jeopardy: they are much more likely to experience adverse environmental experiences during the first months and years of development. These experiences can include neglect of daily care, abandonment, and emotional, sexual and physical abuse. The effects of such experiences can compound the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, as they impact development in a similar way. Maltreatment such as neglect and abuse, especially if this is prolonged and lasts beyond the first six months of life, can have a significant impact on attachment, cognitive, psychological and social development and even physical growth.
To make matters worse, children who suffer maltreatment during early childhood miss out on normal attachment development. This can seriously impact their own parenting skills as adults, and lead to dysfunctional attachment behaviour if and when they become parents themselves. Those who suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are more likely to develop alcohol misuse issues, and are more likely to be involved in risky sexual behaviours. This can increase the risk of unplanned pregnancies, and so the cycle can be self-perpetuating.
Forthcoming research on FASD and neglect
The effects of a) prenatal alcohol exposure and b) early childhood maltreatment are well documented, but there is a surprising lack of research into their combined effects. My research will address this gap, first of all by conducting a systematic review into all published studies into the combined effects of prenatal alcohol exposure and early childhood maltreatment. I am currently writing up the results of this review for publication. It found only six articles on the subject, four of which used experimental methods to assess the impact of both issues. The main finding of these four articles is that speech and language deficits are more likely in children with both issues, compared to children with one or the other.
There are several other aspects of cognitive development that are yet to be addressed in this population, and so the next stage of my research will assess deficits in social cognition and executive function – two of the most prominent areas of deficit in children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and in children with a history of maltreatment. I aim to study these deficits using a combination of caregiver reports and behavioural tasks conducted in a lab at the University of Salford. I am also planning to incorporate a measure of brain activity using functional near infra-red spectroscopy (fNIRS) – a non-invasive technology that uses light waves on the near infra-red spectrum to measure blood movement in the cerebral cortex – the outer layer of the brain. This technology is especially useful in samples of young children, and this will be the first time fNIRS will have been used in this population.
I am currently in the process of applying for ethical approval, and hope to begin data collection soon.
By Salford University PhD student Alan Price