NIAAA Updates Guidelines For Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

By John Lavitt 08/15/16

Fetal Spectrum Alcohol Disorder is the leading cause of preventable developmental disabilities worldwide.

NIAAA Updates Guidelines For Diagnosing Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

As a dark consequence of drinking alcohol during pregnancy, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) is preventable and should never happen to an innocent child in the womb. As part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has made the prevention and correct diagnosing of FASD an ongoing priority. As the director of the NIAAA, George Koob, PhD, brought together an expert panel on FASD to hone the available tools and address this challenge. The panel developed new clinical guidelines for both the prevention and diagnosing of FASD. 

Based on data from 10,000 studies of prenatal alcohol exposure, the new guidelines put together a comprehensive definition of documented prenatal alcohol exposure. The new definition offers a detailed outline and guidebook to help doctors diagnose the facial and physical deformities that are characteristic of FASD. FASD guidelines had previously been updated in 2005. The previous guidelines were the first offered worldwide to help clinicians distinguish between four distinct subtypes of FASD. Since the science has been advancing rapidly, a need was seen for a further revision. 

Published in July, the paper that details the updated guidelines can be found online in Pediatrics. The guidelines have been approved by the Collaboration on FASD Prevalence, an organization that tracks the prevalence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders among U.S. school children. As an umbrella term for the range of disabilities produced by alcohol use during pregnancy, FASD is the number one cause of preventable developmental disabilities worldwide. The diagnosis of FASD is best accomplished through a multidisciplinary approach, including the medical assessment of the child by a pediatrician in combination with expert neuropsychological and behavioral assessment. 

“These new guidelines will be a valuable resource for clinicians to accurately diagnose infants and children who were affected by alcohol exposure before birth. They represent the most data-driven diagnostic criteria for fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol spectrum disorder produced to date,” said NIAAA Director Koob.

The simple truth is that alcohol exposure in the womb can have devastating effects. Many women across the world do not realize that abusing alcohol during pregnancy can lead to impaired children. The new guidelines refine current information about FASD, which have been defined since 1996 by four diagnostic categories to determine the severity of FASD:

1. Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), for the most severe cases

2. Partial fetal alcohol syndrome (PFAS), for children who displayed some but not all of the characteristics of FAS

3. Alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), for children who demonstrated cognitive or behavior impairment without the characteristic physical features

4. Alcohol-related birth defects (ARBD), for children with a physical malformation linked to maternal drinking without other symptoms

“These four diagnostic categories remain the most apt descriptors of the range of disabilities observed within the continuum of FASD. We have refined the guidelines to reflect our collective expertise gained through the evaluation of more 10,000 children in domestic and international venues,” said Dr. Kenneth R. Warren, senior advisor to the NIAAA director, who co-authored the updated guidelines. 

For more information on the updated guidelines, visit the NIAAA's website.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.