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Competency 1: Introduction to FASD

Effects of Alcohol on the Developing Brain

Alcohol can damage the developing brain when it crosses the placenta. Since the brain develops throughout pregnancy, alcohol exposure at any time can cause brain damage. Prenatal exposure to alcohol can change the brain structurally in ways that can be viewed and measured, including:

  • Small head (microcephaly), usually below the 10th percentile.
  • Damage to, or absence of the corpus callosum, an area of the brain that contains nerve fibers that bridge the two hemispheres of the brain. MRIs have shown completely missing areas of the brain in some individuals with an FASD.31,32
  • Abnormal cysts or cavities in the brain.
  • Neurologic problems, such as seizures, tremors, and poor fine motor skills.
  • Patterns of dysfunction on psychometric tests.

Prenatal exposure to alcohol also can change the function of different parts of the brain, leading to deficits in executive functioning, memory, word retrieval, concrete thinking, cognitive flexibility, sensory integration difficulties, and sleep disturbances. The damage can lead to developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavior problems, such as:

  • Mental retardation
  • Problems with attention
  • Hyperactivity
  • Poor impulse control
  • Problems in social perception
  • Speech and language delays or deficits
    • Poor capacity for abstract thinking
    • Specific deficits in math skills
    • Poor judgment
    • Problems with cause and effect
    • Problems anticipating consequences
    • Problems changing behavior or response in different situations

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