University of Victoria neuropsychology professors Kimberly Kerns

Undoing the damage of fetal alcohol disorders

UVic researchers suspect therapy for traumatic brain injuries could translate to positive outcomes for people with fetal alcohol disorders

Head trauma from a car crash and ingesting alcohol while in the womb may look like two distinct insults to the body, but when it comes to the brain, it can be hard to tell the damage apart.

To varying degrees, victims of traumatic brain injuries can experience behavioural and cognitive changes, such as impulsiveness, shortened temper, and impaired focusing, thinking and memory. Two University of Victoria researchers realized that these symptoms appear similar to people suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

And where people with brain injuries can help repair their brain through training and mental exercises, UVic neuropsychology professors Colette Smart and Kimberly Kerns suspect that children and adults with FASD can do the same. But unlike treatment for traumatic brain injuries, there is little in the way of therapies and intervention for fetal alcohol disorders.

“You can think about FASD as a prenatal traumatic brain injury,” Kerns said. “We see many of the same behavioural issues with both populations.”

The researchers have a $65,000 grant from the Canadian Foundation on Fetal Alcohol Research to conduct a two-year project with teenagers and adults already diagnosed with a FASD, an umbrella term that includes fetal alcohol syndrome. The Sooke School District and the Greater Victoria School District are are also participating in the study.

The underlying concept is that the brain has plasticity. With proper training people can rewire their own brain – its circuitry can be altered with a positive impact on mood, behaviour and cognitive ability.

It’s difficult to know how many youth and adults have FASD, but researchers estimate 300,000 Canadians live with some level of impairment from the disorder, and estimate more than 3,000 babies a year are born with fetal alcohol effects.

Kerns noted that kids and adults with FASD tend to struggle with regulating their behaviour rather than necessarily having diminished intelligence.

“The difficulty with FASD is you see a large range of IQs, but you still find behaviour regulation and the ability to adapt and do well in school is difficult, somewhat independent of intellectual ability,” Kerns says. “It is puzzling. We see kids with average range IQs with significant behavioural difficulties.”

“If kids are misdiagnosed to adulthood, they tend to have significant difficulties with employment and trouble with the legal system,” Smart observed. “The idea is to get the kids early to head off trouble.”

Teens who volunteer for the study will undergo mindfulness training, which draws from disciplines of meditation, and which has been shown to promote positive changes in the brain in people with and without brain injuries.

Smart said mindfulness training teaches kids how focus and realize when their emotions veering off course, and to understand the physical reactions of their body to stress.

“Everyone tells kids to pay attention, but no one has taught kids how to pay attention. Here we give them the tools,” Smart said. “Mindfulness training trains people to be present in the moment, to work on patterns of emotion and not to be on autopilot.”

Before and after this mindfulness training, the teens will undergo a series of four tasks – including a car-driving video game – meant to evoke emotional responses, while plugged into a electroencephalography (EEG) machine.

While undergoing the tasks, the kids will don a sensor-studded EEG cap that reads electrical activity of the brain. That data will give Smart and Kerns an idea if and how the mindfulness training is influencing emotional responses and cognitive ability in teens in the study group.

“Kids with (FAS) have a hard time self-regulating. They have to be mindful of what their body is telling them, and that they can intervene on how they respond,” Kerns said.

The researchers are looking for teens ages 11 to 15 years, who have been previously diagnosed with FASD, willing to participate weekly for eight weeks at a location either on the West Shore or at the University of Victoria.

For the adults, the researchers will consider any adult who has a confirmed diagnosis of FASD and would be willing to participate in either a weekly group for eight weeks or an intensive one week residential program.

For more information, contact Kimberly Kerns at 250-472-4195, email or visit


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