The Relationship Between Socioeconomic Status and Brain Volume in Children and Adolescents With Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

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The positive relationship between socioeconomic status (SES) and cognitive performance is mediated, in part, by differences in brain structure in typically developing youth. Associations between brain regions that relate to SES overlap with brain regions known to be sensitive to prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). Animal models demonstrate that PAE attenuates neural and cognitive benefits of early life enrichment. However, whether or not environmental factors related to SES are associated with brain development in youth affected by PAE remains unknown in humans. Methods: T1-weighted magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were obtained in participants with PAE and compared to age- and sex- matched Controls (n = 197, 48% with PAE, 44% girls, 6.5–17.7 years old). General linear modeling was utilized to examine associations between SES and subcortical brain volumes for youth with PAE compared to Controls. Results: Group by SES interactions were observed within the hippocampus (HPC), nucleus accumbens (NAc) and ventral diencephalon (vDC) (corrected p values <0.05), where positive associations (e.g., higher SES related to larger subcortical volumes) were observed within Controls, but not youth with PAE. Post hoc analyses examined associations between SES and brain volumes within each group independently, and revealed widespread positive associations among Controls (Amyg, HPC, NAc, Pallidum, Putamen, vDC), but not youth with PAE. Across both groups, larger subcortical volumes were related to higher cognitive performance. Conclusion: Typically developing youth exhibit increased subcortical volumes with increased SES, and surprisingly, this relationship is absent in adolescents with PAE. Findings suggest that subcortical brain volumes are neurocognitively relevant in both groups. The present results expand our understanding of the impact of PAE on the developing human brain within varying environmental contexts, and may inform novel environmental interventions that aim to improve, in part, on-going disruptions in brain development among youth with PAE. Our study highlights novel complexities in the pursuit to understand SES-brain associations, as we provide evidence that SES matters for brain outcomes among typically developing youth, and possibly not as much on an already altered brain as a result of PAE.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number85
JournalFrontiers in Human Neuroscience
StatePublished - Apr 8 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We would like to thank the families for their participation, and the research assistants for executing data collection at CHLA (Max Orozco, Alexy Andrade, Trinh Luu, Jordan Barlam) and UMN (Julia Tang, Daniel Keefe, Timothy Hendrickson), Emory (Zhihao Li, Sharron Paige). We would also like to thank Dr. Bryon Mueller and Dr. Christopher Boys for their assistance with UMN MRI data and participant acquisition, respectively. This work analyzed the data collected as part of the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD; E. Riley, San Diego State University, Principal Investigator). The data collection sites and associated investigators described in this manuscript are: Children?s Hospital Los Angeles, Los Angeles (ES), University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (JW), San Diego State University, San Diego (SM), and Emory, Atlanta (CC). Additional information about CIFASD can be found at Funding. The neuroimaging research was funded by grants from National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) through the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (CIFASD) U01 AA017122 and U01 AA014834 to ES, JW, SM, and CC. KU was funded by K01AA026889.


  • adoption
  • brain development
  • brain volume
  • collaborative initiative
  • subcortical

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