Fetal alcohol exposure overlooked again?

New study on large youth sample is well done – with a glaring exception

Dr. Carl Bell died on August 1, 2019. This is the last column he wrote for Clinical Psychiatry News. Here are links to colleague tributes to Dr. Bell from Constance E. Dunlap, MD, Altha J. Stewart, MD, Kimberly Gordon-Achebe, MD, et al, and Lorenzo Norris, MD.


In 2016, two researchers published a meta-analysis on gray matter abnormalities in youth who had conduct problems.

Dr. Carl C. Bell, staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s surgical-medical/psychiatric inpatient unit, and clinical professor emeritus, department of psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago

Dr. Carl C. Bell

The study by Jack C. Rogers, PhD, and Stephane A. De Brito, PhD, found 13 well-done studies that included 394 youth with conduct problems and 390 typically developing youth. Compared with the typically developing youth, the conduct-disordered youth had decreased gray matter volume (JAMA Psychiatry. 2016 Jan;73[1]:64-72).

As I knew one of the researchers in one of the studies that made the cut, I called him up and asked whether their research had controlled for fetal alcohol exposure. They had not. I found this very curious because my experience is that youth who have been labeled with conduct disorder often have histories of prenatal fetal alcohol exposure. In addition, my understanding is that youth who have been exposed to prenatal alcohol often have symptoms of conduct disorder. Furthermore, research has shown that such youth have smaller brains (Dev Med Child Neurol. 2001 Mar;43[3]:148-54). I wondered whether the youth studied in that trial had been exposed to alcohol prenatally.

More recently, this problem has resurfaced. An article by Antonia N. Kaczkurkin, PhD, and associates about a large sample of youth was nicely done. But again, the variable of fetal alcohol exposure was not considered. The study was an elegant one that provides a strong rationale for consideration of a “psychopathology factor” in human life (Am J Psychiatry. 2019 Jun 24. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2019.1807035). It shored up that argument by doing neuroimaging studies on a reasonably large sample of youth and showed that reduced cortical thickness (gray matter volume) was associated with overall psychopathology. With the exception of failing to consider the variable of fetal alcohol exposure, the study is a valuable addition to our understanding of what might be going on with psychiatric disorders.

Unfortunately – while hating to sound like a broken record – I noticed that there was no consideration of fetal alcohol exposure as a cause for the findings of the study. It does not seem like a large leap to hypothesize some of these brain imaging studies that find smaller brain components associated with psychopathology and conduct disorder to be a dynamic of fetal alcohol exposure.

It seems to me that we made a huge mistake in public health in asking women only whether they were drinking while they were pregnant because it was the wrong question. The right question is – “When did you realize you were pregnant, and were you doing any social drinking before you knew you were pregnant?”

Without understanding the etiology of the smaller brains in patients with conduct disorder or psychopathology, we are missing a golden opportunity to prevent such problems. The former editor of the American Journal of Psychiatry – Robert A. Freedman, MDsuggests that by giving phosphatidyl choline to pregnant women, such problems could be prevented.

Dr. Bell is a staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital’s Medical/Surgical-Psychiatry Inpatient Unit in Chicago, clinical psychiatrist emeritus in the department of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago, former president/CEO of Community Mental Health Council, and former director of the Institute for Juvenile Research (birthplace of child psychiatry), also in Chicago. In 2019, he was awarded the Adolph Meyer Award by the American Psychiatric Association for lifetime achievement in psychiatric research.

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