Day 54 of our journey and we continue learning more about the brain and how it is affected by prenatal alcohol exposure. The picture below shows what heavy alcohol exposure can do to a brain:
The brain on the left is the brain of a baby with no exposure to alcohol. The brain on the right is the brain of a baby with heavy prenatal exposure to alcohol. Photo courtesy of Sterling Clarren, MD.
Not all prenatal exposure to alcohol is so extreme. However there are many parts of the brain that can be damaged with prenatal exposure to alcohol.
The following is a combination of information from Come Over To and MOFAS. It describes the regions of the brain that are most seriously affected by prenatal alcohol exposure in terms of ability to function.
Frontal Lobes: This area is responsible for emotional regulation, impulse control, judgment, understanding social cues, generalizing learning, and understanding the connection between actions and consequences.
For example, someone with frontal lobe damage would be able to learn to safely cross the street in front of their house, but may be unable to apply the same safe crossing techniques to the street in front of their school.
People with normally functioning brains can learn to cross the street and apply it to all the streets they cross because they are able to generalize their learning. Someone with FASD might have to learn in each setting how to cross each particular street.
People with frontal lobe damage might also have a hard time understanding nuance and complex or abstract thought. They might think very concretely and have significant difficulty with planning & problem solving.
Teresa Kellerman’s article states “The most noteworthy damage to the brain probably occurs in the prefrontal cortex, which controls what are called the Executive Functions.”
Parietal Lobes: Just behind the frontal lobes are the parietal lobes. This area of the brain is largely responsible for interpreting sensory information, touch perception, understanding of spatial relationships, mathematical skills and planned movements, such as writing.
Cerebellum: This area is responsible for motor control, balance, coordination and movement. It is involved in learning, attention and memory. It is also involved in socialization and language skills.
Basal Ganglia: (not shown on diagram but is in central area close to Hippocampus) Damage to this area may involve spatial memory and behaviors.
Examples include inability to switch modes, work towards goals, or predict behavioral outcomes. Damage can also contribute to behaviors such as perseveration.
Another thing that can be affected is the understanding of the passage of time. One strategy to help individuals with FASD better understand time is to use an hour glass. This visual representation of the abstract concept of time can be very helpful to an individual with FASD and help them switch more smoothly from one activity to another.
Hippocampus: This area plays a role in memory, learning, and navigation. It connects sensory input to motor output.
Damage to this area can cause many problems at school and other aspects of life, whether or not the individual has an average IQ.
An individual with FASD who struggles with these deficits is often incorrectly perceived as inattentive or uninterested.
Hypothalamus: This area controls appetite, emotions, temperature, and pain sensation. It also organizes behavior related to survival (fight or flight response).
Brain Stem: The ability to sleep is a brain stem function, and damage can cause problems falling asleep and staying asleep.
Corpus Callosum: This area of the brain connects the left and right hemispheres and allows messages to travel throughout the brain. It allows information from different parts of the brain to be processed together to help regulate behavior.
Individuals with FASD can have damage to the corpus callosum or be missing it altogether.
When this area of the brain doesn’t function correctly, information on the left side of the brain might not be able stop a behavior that originated on the right side. For example, an individual with FASD might know a rule and be able to repeat it, but processing problems do not allow that information to stop the problem behavior in time.
Not noted in the MOFAS information, but is part of Kellerman’s article is:
Amygdala – central part of emotional circuitry, senses danger, fear and anxiety; plays major role in recognizing faces and facial expressions, social behaviour, aggression, and emotional memory; critical for stimulus-reinforcement association learning.
Kellerman goes on to state:
The hypothalamus, amygdala, and hippocampus are part of the limbic system, which regulates emotions, social and sexual behaviour, the “fight or flight” response, and empathy, all areas of concern for individuals with prenatal alcohol exposure.
When we really take a look at what each area of the brain is responsible for then we have a better understanding that FASD is a brain-based physical disability with behavioural symptoms, and realize how important it is to provide accommodations.