Effects of Prenatal Alcohol Exposure on Central Nervous System Development
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Prenatal exposure to alcohol (ethanol) results in a continuum of physical, neurological, behavioral, and learning defects collectively grouped under the heading Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is part of this group and was first defined in 1973 as a condition characterized by pre- and postnatal growth deficiencies, facial abnormalities and defects of the central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is particularly vulnerable to the effects of ethanol during prenatal development. Severe exposure correlates with gross morphological abnormalities and an overall decrease in white matter. Mechanisms for how ethanol affects the development of the CNS are complicated, but damage to neural stem cell progenitor pools that give rise to neurons and glia is strongly suspected to be a major factor. Damage to this population of cells at any point during CNS development can result in abnormalities in the formation and maturation of these cells, from the initial differentiation through the maturation of neuronal networks. This damage can lead to a wide variety of cognitive deficiencies, functional impairments, and behavioral problems depending on the area of the brain impacted by prenatal ethanol exposure.