National Academy of Medicine should revisit issue of fetal alcohol exposure


More than 20 years ago the Institute of Medicine (recently renamed the National Academy of Medicine, or NAM) issued its landmark report on fetal alcohol syndrome. Since then, there has been an explosion of research on the issue of fetal alcohol exposure – and NAM needs to revisit the issue and release another report.

Dr. Carl C. Bell

Dr. Carl C. Bell

Recently, NAM has published another important report, “Perspectives on health equity & social determinates of health.” In this report, I contributed a chapter examining the impact of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) in the African American community. The chapter underscores several vital issues that are necessary for public health and a strengthening of health equity. It suggests that the problem of fetal alcohol exposure disproportionately affects people of color because of the social determinant of more alcohol flooding low-income communities of color.

Unfortunately, too few physicians and not enough people in the larger society understand public health and that the health status of the unfortunate among us affects the health status of the most fortunate of us. In short, low-income people are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine.”

Accordingly, solving the health care problems of low-income people would solve the health care problems of the middle and upper class. Consider where the United States would be had we paid attention to the opioid epidemic in low-income communities instead of waiting until it spread into everyone’s “safe” communities. We would have tried and tested solutions to the problem as it currently exists.

Another reason NAM needs to revisit FASD – currently proposed to be called neurobehavioral disorders associated with prenatal alcohol exposure in the DSM-5 – are the new findings that link FASD to seizure disorders and other neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, such as intellectual disability, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, speech and language disorders, motor disorders, specific learning disorders, and autism. In fact, new research is emerging from Robert Freedman, MD, and his team at the University of Colorado Denver, to suggest that preventing choline deficiency in pregnancy (the mechanism producing neurodevelopmental defects in FASD) may not only prevent neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood but also schizophrenia. Further, it has become abundantly clear that choline deficiency (often generated by FASD), is responsible for affect dysregulation, which is a common thread in various forms of violence and suicide.

A recent report highlighted the findings that inmates incarcerated in Mexican prisons have high rates of intellectual disability, and we know that FASD is one of the leading causes of this problem, but we are not screening for it in our juvenile detention centers, jails, or prisons. Consequently, we need to look for the prevalence of FASD in special education as well as in foster care, because these services often feed our correctional institutions. There also is some recent animal evidence suggesting that sufficient prenatal choline during pregnancy may be protective against Alzheimer’s disease – soon to be an even greater public problem in the United States. Lastly, the neuroscience findings regarding FASD also are emerging.

Hence, there is substantial information growing in various, different but overlapping areas of our systems addressing the nation’s public health and well-being. One of the most respected sources of credible science in America is the National Academy Science. The NAM should convene a meeting of the experts to examine the current state of FASD knowledge. If there is sufficient new information, the NAM needs to develop a new report on FASD. It has been 21 years since the first FAS report from the Institute of Medicine and it needs to be revisited. But it appears that the correctional, child protective services, special education, and mental health fields are not aware of the breadth of available research and its importance to the nation’s public health. Determining how fetal alcohol exposure/choline deficiency affects children and adults in special education, foster care, juvenile and adult corrections systems – along with such other social issues as prematurity, disability, unemployment, homelessness, suicide, violence, and mental health – is critical to our nation’s future.

Dr. Bell is a staff psychiatrist at Jackson Park Hospital Family Medicine Clinic 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.

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