Fetal MRI based brain atlas analysis detects initial in utero effects of prenatal alcohol exposure

Marlene Stuempflen, Ernst Schwartz, Mariana C Diogo, Sarah Glatter, Birgit Pfeiler, Patric Kienast, Athena Taymourtash, Victor U Schmidbauer, Lisa Bartha-Doering, Elisabeth Krampl-Bettelheim, Rainer Seidl, Georg Langs, Daniela Prayer, Gregor Kasprian, Fetal MRI based brain atlas analysis detects initial in utero effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, Cerebral Cortex, 2023;, bhad005, https://doi.org/10.1093/cercor/bhad005


Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) can change the normal trajectory of human fetal brain development and may lead to long-lasting neurodevelopmental changes in the form of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. Currently, early prenatal patterns of alcohol-related central nervous system changes are unclear and it is unknown if small amounts of PAE may result in early detectable brain anomalies.

This super-resolution fetal magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study aimed to identify regional effects of PAE on human brain structure. Fetuses were prospectively assessed using atlas-based semi-automated 3-dimensional tissue segmentation based on 1.5 T and 3 T fetal brain MRI examinations. After expectant mothers completed anonymized PRAMS and TACE questionnaires for PAE, fetuses without gross macroscopic brain abnormalities were identified and analyzed. Linear mixed-effects modeling of regional brain volumes was conducted and multiple comparisons were corrected using the Benjamini–Hochberg procedure.

In total, 500 pregnant women were recruited with 51 reporting gestational alcohol consumption. After excluding confounding comorbidities, 24 fetuses (26 observations) were identified with PAE and 52 age-matched controls without PAE were analyzed. Patients with PAE showed significantly larger volumes of the corpus callosum (P ≤ 0.001) and smaller volumes of the periventricular zone (P = 0.001). Even minor (1–3 standard drinks per week) PAE changed the neurodevelopmental trajectory.

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