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Environ Health Perspect. 2000 June; 108(Suppl 3): 421–428.
PMCID: PMC1637818
Research Article

On categorizations in analyses of alcohol teratogenesis.


In biomedical scientific investigations, expositions of findings are conceptually simplest when they comprise comparisons of discrete groups of individuals or involve discrete features or characteristics of individuals. But the descriptive benefits of categorization become outweighed by their limitations in studies involving dose-response relationships, as in many teratogenic and environmental exposure studies. This article addresses a pair of categorization issues concerning the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure that have important public health consequences: the labeling of individuals as fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) versus fetal alcohol effects (FAE) or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder (ARND), and the categorization of prenatal exposure dose by thresholds. We present data showing that patients with FAS and others with FAE do not have meaningfully different behavioral performance, standardized scores of IQ, arithmetic and adaptive behavior, or secondary disabilities. Similarly overlapping distributions on measures of executive functioning offer a basis for identifying alcohol-affected individuals in a manner that does not simply reflect IQ deficits. At the other end of the teratological continuum, we turn to the reporting of threshold effects in dose-response relationships. Here we illustrate the importance of multivariate analyses using data from the Seattle, Washington, longitudinal prospective study on alcohol and pregnancy. Relationships between many neurobehavioral outcomes and measures of prenatal alcohol exposure are monotone without threshold down to the lowest nonzero levels of exposure, a finding consistent with reports from animal studies. In sum, alcohol effects on the developing human brain appear to be a continuum without threshold when dose and behavioral effects are quantified appropriately.

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Selected References

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