New research into fetal alcohol spectrum disorder offers hope

Regular exercise can help repair brain damage caused by drinking – including in children exposed to alcohol before they were born.

“If you exercise, even in adulthood … that tends to lead to the production of more new cells in the brain and you tend to have an increase in cognitive capacity,” said Brian Christie, senior scholar and associate professor in the division of medical sciences at the University of Victoria.

Since he began research into the disorder in 2002, Christie has found that increasing cardiovascular systems supports the development of new neurons, the functional cells in the brain. In one of his studies, children with FASD play computer games while wired to recumbent bicycles. As the children pedal their bikes and play the games, which are designed to test cognitive abilities, the kids’ heart rates and brain function are tracked.

“Basically, they’re computer-like games, except they’re designed specifically to improve underlying cognitive abilities, including attention and working memory and inhibitory control,” said Kimberly Kerns, associate professor in the department of psychology at UVic.

She’s collaborating with Christie on the cycling project, now funded by NeuroDevNet through the Network of Centres of Excellence, which are aimed at helping children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

Christie and his colleagues in the medical sciences are also continuing research into repairing damage caused by exposure to alcohol in the unborn, through the prenatal supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids and choline, an essential nutrient.

“The baby’s brain is unusual in that it’s really highly active in generating new neurons, and that’s something that the adult brain doesn’t do,” Christie said.

Kerns has also collaborated with the computer science department at UVic to create a new set of electronic programs, not related to the exercise study, meant to boost brain function in kids with FASD.

The games are already being administered through Kerns’ colleagues in Edmonton schools. In 2007/08, Kerns used similar electronic learning tools on children with FASD in Sooke schools. The project is one she’d like to bring to Victoria.

This month, Kerns also begins a pilot project focused on using meditation to improve brain function in adults diagnosed with FASD. The six subjects of the study will use a “mindfulness-based approach to self-regulation and behavioural regulation,” she explained.

Additionally, one of Kerns’ students is conducting an experiment into suggestibility in FASD patients, through the Complex Developmental Behavioural Conditions network at the Queen Alexandra Foundation for Children.

“It may be that an individual with FASD, in an interrogative session, might all of a sudden believe they have done something, even if they haven’t, if they’re highly suggestible,” Kerns said of the need for the research.

nnorth@saanichnews.com