Many children with heavy exposure to alcohol in utero display characteristic alterations in brain size and structure. However, the long-term effects of low-to-moderate alcohol exposure on these outcomes are unknown.
Using voxel-based morphometry and region-of-interest analyses, we examined the influence of lower doses of alcohol on gray and white matter composition in a prospectively recruited, homogeneous, well-characterized cohort of alcohol-exposed (n = 11, age 19.5 ± 0.3 years) and control (n = 9, age 19.6 ± 0.5 years) young adults. A large proportion of the exposed individuals were born to mothers whose alcohol consumption during pregnancy was in the low-to-moderate range.
There were no differences in total brain volume or total gray or white matter volume between the exposed and control groups. However, gray matter volume was reduced in alcohol-exposed individuals in several areas previously reported to be affected by high levels of exposure, including the left cingulate gyrus, bilateral middle frontal gyri, right middle temporal gyrus, and right caudate nucleus. Notably, this gray matter loss was dose dependent, with higher exposure producing more substantial losses.
These results indicate that even at low doses, alcohol exposure during pregnancy impacts brain development and that these effects persist into young adulthood.
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