The most common preventable birth defect is fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), which causes cognitive impairments and physical abnormalities among an estimated 2 to 4 percent of the population.

With a new $1.7 million grant from the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Jeffrey Wozniak, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is determined to better understand how prenatal alcohol exposure changes brain networks over time in kids with FASD.

“This area of research is relatively young, so there is a lot to learn,” said Wozniak. “We really have no way to predict how the disorder will progress in an individual or what happens to specific parts of the brain as normal development occurs.”

Wozniak will gather brain scans of about 90 kids, ages 8 to 16. Then, a year and half later, he’ll gather another round of brain scans from the same 90 kids. He’ll analyze the changes in the scans to determine how the brain organizes its networks, how those networks differ from healthy brains and which specific circuits in the brain appear to be most affected.

“Sometimes FASD presents with physical symptoms – like smaller eyes, changes to the lip and mid-face, ear abnormalities and other telltale signs – but in most cases it impacts a child in ways we cannot immediately see,” Wozniak said. “But if we know how and where FASD affects the brain, we can provide a more accurate early diagnosis.”

In doing so, Wozniak adds, they’ll be able to improve quality of life for kids with FASD.