Neural correlates of verbal memory in youth with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure

  • Lauren A. Gross
  • Eileen M. Moore
  • Jeffrey R. Wozniak
  • Claire D. Coles
  • Julie A. Kable
  • Elizabeth R. Sowell
  • Kenneth L. Jones
  • Edward P. Riley
  • Sarah N. Mattson
  • the CIFASD
Original Research


Prenatal alcohol exposure can impact both brain development and neurobehavioral function, including verbal learning and recall, although the relation between verbal recall and brain structure in this population has not been examined fully. We aimed to determine the structural neural correlates of verbal learning and recall in youth with histories of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure using a region of interest (ROI) approach. As part of an ongoing multisite project, subjects (age 10–16 years) with prenatal alcohol exposure (AE, n = 81) and controls (CON, n = 81) were tested using the CVLT-C and measures of cortical volume, surface area, and thickness as well as hippocampal volume were derived from MRI. Group differences in brain and memory indices were tested with ANOVA. Multiple regression analyses tested whether brain ROIs significantly predicted memory performance. The AE group had lower scores than the CON group on all CVLT-C variables (ps ≤ .001) and volume and surface area (ps < .025), although results varied by ROI. No group differences in cortical thickness were found. The relations between cortical structure and memory performance differed between group among some ROIs, particularly those in the frontal cortex, generally with smaller surface area and/or thinner cortex predicting better performance in CON but worse performance in AE. Cortical surface area appears to be the most sensitive index to the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, while cortical thickness appears to be the least sensitive. These findings also indicate that the neural correlates of verbal memory are altered in youth with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure compared to controls.


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) Prenatal alcohol exposure Memory Neurobehavioral profile Brain 



Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder


Fetal alcohol syndrome


California Verbal Learning Test- Children’s Version



All or part of this work was done in conjunction with the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD), which is funded by grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Additional information about CIFASD can be found at

The authors thank the families that participate in our research studies and acknowledge the support of the Center for Behavioral Teratology.

Compliance with ethical standards


This work was supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [grant numbers U01 AA014834 and U01 AA017122]. Additional support provided by U01 AA014815, and U01 AA014811 and K99/R00 AA022661.

Financial disclosure

The authors have no financial relationships relevant to this article to disclose.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.

Ethical approval

The work described in this paper was approved by the institutional review boards at San Diego State University, the University of California, San Diego, and all participating data collection locations.

Informed consent

Informed consent and assent from subjects and their parents were obtained prior to participation.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Lauren A. Gross
    • 1
  • Eileen M. Moore
    • 1
  • Jeffrey R. Wozniak
    • 2
  • Claire D. Coles
    • 3
    • 4
  • Julie A. Kable
    • 4
  • Elizabeth R. Sowell
    • 5
  • Kenneth L. Jones
    • 6
  • Edward P. Riley
    • 1
  • Sarah N. Mattson
    • 1
  • the CIFASD
  1. 1.Center for Behavioral Teratology, Department of PsychologySan Diego State UniversitySan DiegoUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA
  3. 3.Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral SciencesEmory University School of MedicineAtlantaUSA
  4. 4.Department of PediatricsEmory University School of MedicineAtlantaUSA
  5. 5.Department of Pediatrics, Keck School of Medicine, Children’s Hospital Los AngelesUniversity of Southern CaliforniaLos AngelesUSA
  6. 6.Department of Pediatrics, School of MedicineUniversity of California, San DiegoLa JollaUSA

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