In Brief

Children whose mothers abused alcohol during pregnancy have auditory and visual attention deficits, but the effects aren't global, finds a study in May's Neuropsychology (Vol. 20, No. 3). Exploring patterns in these children's attention problems may shed light on how to increase their ability to pay attention in the classroom, says lead author Sarah N. Mattson, PhD, of San Diego State University.

In the study, researchers assessed how well 20 alcohol-exposed 9- to 12-year-olds and 20 matched control participants engaged, disengaged and shifted their attention. The alcohol-exposed children were referred to the study by health-care or social services professionals. Their mothers drank heavily during pregnancy, as much as a fifth of alcohol per day.

Using a computer, the researchers successively presented the students with one of four stimuli--a yellow square, a blue square, a high-sounding tone or a low-sounding tone--with 450 milliseconds to 30 seconds between each target. In the visual condition, the children were instructed to press a button when a yellow square appeared on the computer monitor, ignoring blue squares and any tones. In the auditory condition, they pressed the button for low-sounding tones. In a third condition, the children shifted between identifying the low tone and the yellow box each time they correctly identified a target.

As expected, the alcohol-exposed children were significantly less accurate than the control group in the auditory and visual conditions. However, although they were significantly slower to respond to the visual stimuli at all intervals, they were significantly slower on the auditory task only when the targets were more than 10 seconds apart.

Taken together, the data indicate that attention deficits of children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure might vary based on the task at hand, says Mattson.

Indeed, although the children lagged behind their peers on the visual task, their auditory attention was intact except at the long intervals. They also performed as accurately as their peers when asked to shift between the auditory and visual stimuli, though they were significantly slower to respond.

By mapping out the attention patterns of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, researchers may be able to shed light on ways teachers can effectively instruct these students, she says.

"We see some areas of weakness and some areas of relative strength," explains Mattson. "I think that we will find the same pattern of strengths and weaknesses in the other areas of cognitive function that remain to be studied."

--D. Smith Bailey