Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are more common than thought, say researchers at congressional briefing

  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
  • Risks and Effects

Many women aren’t fully aware of the risks associated with drinking while pregnant, and the public needs more information on the symptoms and severity of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), according to experts who spoke at a congressional briefing.

FASD is more common than researchers had thought, George F. Koob, PhD, who directs the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, said at the briefing on April 13, which was co-hosted by APA’s Science Directorate Government Relations Office. New research shows that FASD affects 2.4 percent to 4.8 percent of U.S. children when partial cases are included (Pediatrics, 2014). Though more research is needed, the institute has made some progress in treating the condition, including funding the development of a 3-D scanning technique that decodes changes in a child’s facial structure due to the disorder, helping doctors diagnose it.

Early diagnosis and treatment are essential since FASD is associated with a host of neurological consequences, including problems with executive function, learning, memory and motor skills, said Edward P. Riley, PhD, distinguished professor of psychology and director of the Center for Behavioral Teratology at San Diego State University. “It is by far worse in terms of causing problems than other drugs of abuse as it acts on a variety of cellular functions throughout gestation,” he said. “Doctors are unwilling or unable to make the [FASD] diagnosis. However, when you tell people this is a brain-based disorder and you can help in treating the consequences, it changes attitudes.”

Unfortunately, FASD persists in part because many women who are pregnant and drink are ashamed or afraid to come forward, fearing stigma or prosecution, said Kathleen T. Mitchell, vice president of the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Though the U.S. surgeon general says that no level of prenatal alcohol exposure is safe, doctors often don’t mention the issue, she said. “It breaks my heart that there are women who still don’t know we shouldn’t be drinking during pregnancy.”


Lu, S. (2015). Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders are more common than thought, say researchers at congressional briefing. Vol. 46. No. 6. Pg. 14. American Psychological Association.