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Center on Human Development and Disability
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Collaborative Research Area on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Coordinator: Susan Astley, Ph.D.


Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) is a permanent birth defect syndrome caused by maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. The condition is characterized by growth deficiency, a unique cluster of minor facial anomalies, and central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities. The prevalence of FAS is estimated to be 1 to 2 per 1,000 live-births in the general population, and as high as 10 to 15 per 1,000 in high-risk populations like foster care. Not all individuals exposed and damaged by alcohol have FAS. Most present with neuropsychological impairments without the physical findings. The condition is now recognized as a spectrum of disorders, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD).

Faculty investigators for the Collaborative Research Area on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders address seven areas of concentration within an interdisciplinary framework:

  • First, they seek to develop and test screening and diagnostic tools for accurate and reproducible identification of the full spectrum of disorders associated with fetal alcohol exposure. Research efforts are focused on rigorously testing the performance of the tools (e.g., sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value, construct validity, test-retest) in clinical and population-based samples. Research efforts are also focused on assessing the diagnostic utility of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), spectroscopy (MRS), functional MRI (fMRI), and fetal ultrasound. Accurate diagnoses not only lead to more appropriate interventions, but also to more accurate estimates of prevalence over time for assessment of primary prevention efforts.
  • Second, investigators are engaged in FASD prevention and intervention research using randomized control trial methodology. The prevention research seeks to assess the efficacy of paraprofessional advocacy programs targeted to high-risk women. Key goals are reduction in alcohol use and improved family planning. The intervention research seeks to assess the efficacy of behavioral consultation, social communication, and sensory-motor intervention programs targeted to children with FASD, their parents, and their teachers. Key goals are increased parent/teacher skills in meeting the needs of their children, improved child social communication skills, and improved child balance and postural control.
  • A third area of concentration is empirical research that seeks to elucidate the lifelong cognitive/behavioral profile(s) of individuals with prenatal alcohol exposure. This research is instrumental in setting public health policy for meeting the lifelong needs of these individuals.
  • A fourth area of concentration is the study of newborn cerebrovascular responses to maternal alcohol use. This research will further elucidate the pathogenesis of brain damage associated with prenatal alcohol use.
  • A fifth area of concentration is the study of sleep disorders in individuals with FASD utilizing the Pediatric Sleep Center Laboratory at Seattle Children's Hospital. "Sleep problems" are a common complaint for children with FASD. In-utero alcohol exposure may cause neurodevelopmental alterations of respiratory control, muscular tone, and midfacial anomalies that can result in sleep disordered breathing, including obstructive sleep apnea.
  • A sixth area of concentration is developmental neurotoxicity of ethanol focusing on the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure on interactions between neurons and astrocytes. Astrocytes are glial cells that play an important role during brain development as they regulate neuronal survival, migration, and differentiation. Under investigation are novel mechanisms of astrocyte-neuron interactions relevant to brain development, and how ethanol affects these interactions by influencing the release of proteins and lipids from astrocytes, contributing to the brain injury observed in individuals with FASD.
  • A seventh area of concentration is studying the role of epigenetics in the etiology of FASD in a mouse model. Current work demonstrates maternal ethanol consumption either before or after fertilization affects the expression of an epigentically sensitive allele in the offspring and impacts postnatal body weight and skull size and shape in a manner consistent with FASD.

This CRA will work closely with two UCEDD programs: the Teratogen Information System and the FAS Diagnostic and Prevention Network.

Faculty Investigators

  • Susan Astley, Ph.D., Professor, Epidemiology and Pediatrics, Coordinator
  • Elizabeth Aylward, Ph.D., Associate Director Center for Integrative Brain Research, Seattle Children's Research Institute
  • Julia Bledsoe, M.D., Clinical Associate Professor, Pediatrics
  • Thomas Burbacher, Ph.D., Professor, Environmental Health
  • Allison Brooks, Ph.D., Lecturer, College of Education
  • Heather Carmichael Olson, Ph.D., Senior Lecturer, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Maida Chen, M.D., Acting Assistant Professor, Pediatrics
  • Truman Coggins, Ph.D., Professor, Speech and Hearing Sciences
  • Tim Cox, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor, Pediatrics
  • Julian Davies, M.D., Assistant Professor, Pediatrics
  • Jean Deitz, Ph.D., Professor, Rehabilitation Medicine
  • Elaine Faustman, Ph.D., Professor, Environmental Health
  • Christine Gleason, M.D., Professor, Pediatrics
  • Therese Grant, Ph.D., Research Associate Professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
  • Tracy Jirikowic, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Rehabilitation Medicine
  • Kim Kerns, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Psychology, University of Victoria
  • Kenneth Maravilla, M.D., Professor, Radiology
  • Sarah Westcott McCoy, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Rehabilitation Medicine
  • Lesley Olswang, Ph.D., Professor, Speech and Hearing Sciences
  • Todd Richards, Ph.D., Professor, Radiology
  • Paul Sampson, Ph.D., Research Professor, Statistics
  • Dennis Shaw, Ph.D., Professor, Radiology
  • Edward Weinberger, M.D., Professor, Radiology

University of Washington • Center on Human Development and Disability Box 357920 • Seattle WA 98195-7920 USA • 206-543-7701 •chdd@uw.edu