Abnormal cortical thickness and brain-behavior correlation patterns in individuals with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure

Elizabeth R. Sowell, Sarah N. Mattson, Eric Kan, Paul M. Thompson, Edward P. Riley, Arthur W. Toga

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

182 Scopus citations


Quantitative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies in children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) have shown regional patterns of dysmorphology, most prominent in parietal and posterior temporal cortices. Various methods of image analysis have been employed in these studies, but abnormalities in cortical thickness have not yet been mapped over the entire cortical surface in individuals with FASD. Further, relationships between cognitive dysfunction and cortical thickness measures have not yet been explored. We applied cortical pattern matching algorithms and techniques for measuring cortical thickness in millimeters to the structural brain MRI images of 21 subjects with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure (8-22 years, mean age 12.6 years), and 21 normally developing control subjects (8-25 years, mean age 13.5 years). Dissociable cognitive measures, of verbal recall and visuospatial functioning, were correlated with cortical thickness, and group by test score interactions were evaluated for predicting cortical thickness. Significant cortical thickness excesses of up to 1.2 mm were observed in the FASD subjects in large areas of bilateral temporal, bilateral inferior parietal, and right frontal regions. Significant group by test score interactions were found in right dorsal frontal regions for the verbal recall measure and in left occipital regions for the visuospatial measure. These results are consistent with earlier analyses from our own and other research groups, but for the first time, we show that cortical thickness is also increased in right lateral frontal regions in children with prenatal alcohol exposure. Further, the significant interactions show for the first time that brain-behavior relationships are altered as a function of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)136-144
Number of pages9
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • FAS
  • Frontal lobe
  • Prenatal alcohol exposure
  • Verbal learning
  • Visuospatial


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