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Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2010 May;34(5):897-906. doi: 10.1111/j.1530-0277.2010.01162.x. Epub 2010 Mar 3.

Verbal and nonverbal memory in adults prenatally exposed to alcohol.

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Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, USA. <>



Neurocognitive effects of prenatal alcohol exposure in adulthood are not well documented. Questions persist regarding the extent to which there are specific, measurable effects beyond those associated with global ability deficits, whether individuals without the full fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) demonstrate alcohol-related cognitive impairments, and whether observed memory effects are specific to a particular modality, i.e., verbal vs. visual/spatial domains.


In this study, verbal and nonverbal selective reminding paradigms were used to assess memory function in 234 young adults (M age: 22.78, SD: 1.79). Alcohol exposure was quantified prenatally. Alcohol groups included: Individuals with physical effects of alcohol exposure (Dysmorphic group, n = 47); Exposed individuals without such effects (n = 74). Contrast groups included: Controls (n = 59) matched for ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and hospital of birth; Special Education contrast group (n = 54) included to control for disability status. Memory outcomes entailed total recall, delayed recall, and measures of encoding and retrieval, and learning over trials as indexed by slope.


Results indicated that Dysmorphic individuals were significantly less efficient in memory performance than Controls on all of the outcomes measured, but they did not differ from those in the Special Education contrast group. The nondysmorphic, alcohol-exposed group was intermediate in their performance, suggesting a continuum of effects of prenatal exposure. Evaluation of the encoding and retrieval aspects of memory performance indicated that learning rather than forgetting accounted for the deficits associated with prenatal alcohol exposure. Finally, no interaction was found between modality of presentation (verbal and nonverbal) and effects of alcohol exposure on memory performance.


These findings indicate that prenatal alcohol exposure is associated with persistent and specific effects on memory performance, and these problems result from less efficient encoding of information across both verbal and nonverbal modalities. Education and training efforts with this clinical group should take these characteristics into account.

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