Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Research Conducted at UVM

Currently, Professor John Green, of the UVM Psychology Department, is leading a study on fetal alcohol syndrome. Professor Green’s research is examining the long-term effects of early exposure to alcohol. The research was developed by Professor Green during his post-doctoral fellowship at Indiana University and has been on going for five years. Fetal alcohol syndrome, or FAS, can result in both mental and physical birth defects such as facial deformities, growth deficits, organ defects, behavioral abnormalities, visual and hearing complications, and mental retardation. The research is focusing on the long-term effects that early exposure to alcohol has on the cerebellum, an area of the brain that is important in motor learning. The cerebellum is located in the lower back area of the brain. It is responsible for the coordination and control of voluntary movements and motor skills, such as walking, posture, and speech as well as some cognitive learning. Recent studies have shown that the cerebellum may also be responsible for the control of emotions, attention, and muscle tone as well. The hypothesis of the experiment is that during critical periods of development, alcohol exposure can lead to permanent alterations or damage to the cerebellum. Such damages or alterations would include loss of or change in certain behaviors, changes in the physiology and structure of the cerebellum, and the loss of neurons in the cerebellum. The study itself involved exposing rat pups to alcohol. This is because a newborn rat’s brain is at the development stage equivalent to one of a human fetus in the third trimester. In this experiment, there are two groups of rats. One group of rats receives alcohol, while the other does not. Whether or not the rats receive alcohol is the independent variable of the experiment. Afterwards, when the rats reach an adult stage, they are tested on a simple motor learning task that requires the use of the cerebellum. In some cases, neural activity in the cerebellum is monitored during the learning of the assigned task. The dependent variable of this experiment is the rat’s ability to learn and the number of existing neurons in the cerebellum. Professor Green hopes that UVM students can benefit from his research as well. The study is relevant to students because it shows how and when alcohol consumption is harmful to a developing fetus during pregnancy. The results of this study will be able to show how function is impaired by developmental alcohol exposure. Professor Green hopes that further research will be able to help examine ways to improve function based on what is learned from his research. Through his research, Professor Green hopes to increase the understanding of fetal alcohol syndrome and the damage that it causes.