The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)—part of the National Institutes of Health, the Nation’s medical research agency— funds research on fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) with projects on preventing prenatal alcohol exposure, treating women with alcohol use disorder, improving the diagnosis of FASD, establishing more precise prevalence estimates of FASD in the United States, increasing our understanding of the effects of alcohol on the unborn child, and developing effective interventions to mitigate the health effects on individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol.

Prenatal alcohol exposure is a leading preventable cause of birth defects and neurodevelopmental deficits in the United States. It can cause a range of intellectual and behavioral problems, which appear at any time during childhood and last a lifetime. FASD is an umbrella term for a range of physical, cognitive, and behavioral disorders caused by prenatal alcohol exposure. Depending on the features identified, the medical disorders labeled as FASD include: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), partial FAS (pFAS), alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), and neurobehavioral disorder associated with prenatal alcohol exposure (ND-PAE). Recent prevalence studies estimate that approximately 1 to 5 percent of U.S. first-grade children have FASD.

Historically, medical professionals did not recognize the risks posed by alcohol use during pregnancy. In 1973, responding to Jones and Smith’s publication on the original syndrome FAS, NIAAA initiated several epidemiological and animal studies on prenatal alcohol exposure. By 1977, this research facilitated NIAAA issuing the first government health advisory to limit alcohol use during pregnancy. Now, after almost 50 years, NIAAA continues to provide leadership and support as the largest funder of biomedical research on FASD in the United States.

 

NIAAA’s FASD Grant Portfolio

In FY2019, NIAAA allocated approximately 7 percent of its extramural research and training budget, or roughly $30 million, for its portfolio of FASD-related grants. This portfolio currently comprises approximately 113 grants, including research project grants, cooperative agreements, training grants, center grants, fellowships, and career development awards, that collectively address FASD prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and etiology. In addition, NIAAA funds conference grants that support the annual meeting of the FASD Study Group (www.fasdsg.org) and the International Research Conference on FASD in Vancouver. A list of NIH funded FASD-related projects may be found here.

 

Research Centers and Consortia working on FASD

  • The Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD) is a multidisciplinary consortium of domestic and international projects established by NIAAA in 2003 to address prevention of FASD, diagnosis of the full range of birth defects associated with prenatal alcohol exposure, and ameliorative interventions for affected individuals. CIFASD aims to accelerate the translation of key research findings by fostering collaboration and by coordinating clinical, basic, and translational research. Learn more about the CIFASD at www.cifasd.org.
  • New Mexico Alcohol Research Center (NMARC) is a NIAAA-designated specialized Alcohol Research Center located at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. NMARC is one of just twenty Alcohol Research Centers in the United States, and the only such center focused solely on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). NMARC’s central focus is on understanding the neurobiological mechanisms underlying the behavioral problems associated with FASD and how to use this knowledge to help develop better methods of early diagnoses and more effective interventions for patients with FASD. Learn more about the NMARC at https://hsc.unm.edu/nmarc/.
  • Developmental Exposure Alcohol Research Center (DEARC) is a NIAAA-designated specialized Alcohol Research Center located at Binghamton University. The research of the DEARC focuses on the two primary developmental periods during which alcohol exposure occurs: prenatally/postnatally through maternal use and during adolescence. Learn more about the DEARC at https://www.binghamton.edu/centers/dearc/.
  • Native Center for Alcohol Research and Education (NCARE) is a NIAAA-designated comprehensive Alcohol Research Center located at Washington State University. Among its research projects is Native CHOICES, a study implementing a culturally adapted intervention with American Indian women of reproductive age to reduce their risk for an alcohol-exposed pregnancy. Learn more about NCARE at https://ireach.wsu.edu/ncare/.

 

Program Directors to contact with FASD-related inquiries

  • Tatiana Balachova, Ph.D.
    tatiana.balachova@nih.gov
    Program Director – Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research (DEPR)
    Focus areas: Reproductive and perinatal epidemiology; Prevention among women of child-bearing age; Family-based prevention
  • Bill Dunty, Ph.D.
    William.Dunty@nih.gov
    NIAAA FASD Research Coordinator
    Program Director – Division of Metabolism and Health Effects (DMHE)
    Focus areas: Basic and clinical research on the consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure; Animal models of FASD
  • Elizabeth Powell, Ph.D.
    elizabeth.powell3@nih.gov
    Program Director – Division of Neuroscience and Behavior (DNB)
    Focus areas: Developmental neurobiology; FASD, Bioengineering
  • Deidra Roach, M.D.
    droach@mail.nih.gov
    Program Director – Division of Treatment and Recovery Research (DTRR)
    Focus areas: AUD and co-occurring medical conditions; alcohol and women; Interventions for FASD
  • Joe Wang, Ph.D.
    Joe.Wang1@nih.gov
    Program Director – Division of Metabolism and Health Effects (DMHE)
    Focus areas: Alcohol use-related pathophysiology of the immune system, gut and liver. Preclinical and clinical studies on FASD

 

New FASD-Initiatives

Consensus Conference on Research Classification of FASD

In October 2019, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), part of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), convened a 1.5-day meeting to explore the possibility of developing an international consensus classification system for research on FASD. We believe that a single classification system will harmonize research efforts across the globe and accelerate progress in understanding the epidemiology, pathogenesis, diagnosis, and treatment of FASD. A major goal of the conference was to build consensus among participants who subsequently agreed to test a few draft classification systems in their own research databases to inform the process going forward.

 

Latest News & Research

Combined prenatal smoking and drinking greatly increases SIDS risk (January 20, 2020)
SIDS is the sudden, unexplained, death of an infant under one year of age. Many studies have shown that the risk of SIDS is increased by maternal smoking during pregnancy. Some studies have also found that prenatal alcohol exposure, particularly from heavy drinking during pregnancy, can increase SIDS risk. The NIH-funded Safe Passage Study elucidates how SIDS risk is influenced by the timing and amount of prenatal exposure to tobacco and alcohol. A report of the study appears in EclinicalMedicine, an online journal published by The Lancet.

Using both marijuana and alcohol during early pregnancy may increase the likelihood of disrupting fetal development (November 8, 2019)
New preclinical research reported in animal models shows that exposure to compounds found in marijuana called cannabinoids (CBs), which include cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), during early pregnancy can cause malformations in the developing embryo. The research also demonstrated that co-exposure to CBs and alcohol increased the likelihood of birth defects involving the face and brain. The study was published in Scientific Reports.

Study of first-graders shows fetal alcohol spectrum disorders prevalent in US communities (February 6, 2019)
A study of more than 6,000 first graders across four U.S. communities has found that a significant number of the children have fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), with conservative rates ranging from 1 to 5 percent in community samples. The new findings represent more accurate prevalence estimates of FASD among general U.S. communities than prior research. Previous FASD estimates were based on smaller study populations and did not reflect the overall U.S. population. The study was published in JAMA.

Director's Blog: Why September is Especially Important to Alcohol Research (September 2019)
September is a significant month for the alcohol field for two reasons: it is the month dedicated to raising awareness about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and to celebrating recovery from alcohol and other substance use disorders.

Director's Blog: Raising Awareness about Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (September 2018)
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, also known as FASD, is a term that refers to the broad range of lifelong birth defects and neurodevelopmental abnormalities that occur as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. In this edition of Dr. Koob’s blog, he wants to remind everyone that there is no known safe level of alcohol, or time to drink, during pregnancy.

 

FASD-related Brochures and Fact Sheets

 

Federal and Professional Partners

  • The Interagency Coordinating Committee on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (ICCFASD
     
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC
     
  • American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP
     
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG
     
  • National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – (NOFAS
     
  • PROOF Alliance 
     

 

Last reviewed: July 2020