Research Suggests Therapy Approach
New York Times
November 4, 2003
Research Suggests Therapy Approach
When Sidney Guimont's learning disabilities were diagnosed as fetal alcohol syndrome 14 years ago, no therapy was available to help her or others similarly damaged by alcohol.

There still is none.

Ms. Guimont, now 28, remembers how hard it was to keep up with her classmates.

"I always felt like I was on the outside looking in," she said.

"Everyone was going at one pace. I was going at another. They were all going faster than I was."

Although no one knows to what extent damage to the brain and nervous system can be reversed, recent animal research has suggested that improvements can be made if therapy is started early in life.

A study published last year found that with the right training, rats could overcome some of the deficits caused by alcohol exposure.

Initially, the alcohol-exposed rats had problems with coordination, particularly in synchronizing the movements of front and rear paws, said the study's lead author, Dr. Anna Klintsova, an assistant professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton. But, after 20 days of training on an obstacle course, the rats learned how to maneuver better.

To test the improvement, the researchers put the rodents through a "sort of rat Olympics," said co-author Dr. Charles Goodlett, a professor of psychology at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis.

During the first few runs through the course the rats often fell as they tried to traverse difficult obstacles, like parallel bars. Each time a rat lost balance and fell, its trainer would catch it and and put it back up on the obstacle until the rat figured out how to navigate on its own.

Ultimately, when the trained, alcohol-exposed rats were tested on an obstacle course that they had never seen, they did as well as trained unexposed rats, Dr. Klintsova said, and they did better than untrained unexposed rats.

Even though the trained rats had many more synapses per neuron than the untrained, the researchers found that compared with healthy rats, those exposed to alcohol had fewer neurons overall.

"We're not saying that the training completely cured the rats," Dr. Klintsova said. "But apparently the additional synapses per nerve cell were sufficient to increase learning and performance."

In a study at Emory University, researchers are trying to duplicate those results with children. They have drawn up a curriculum that focuses on particular areas like arithmetic that have proved hard for children with alcohol-related disorders.

For example, researchers have devised new ways to teach children with the syndrome about sequences and series, said Dr. Claire D. Coles, director of the Fetal Alcohol Center at the Marcus Institute and a professor at the Emory School of Medicine.

Dr. Coles and her colleagues give each child a piece of rope, clothespins and index cards. The children are asked to describe a day's events. Then the child's tutor determines the order the events occurred and draws each event on a card. The student hangs up the cards on the rope in the correct order.

"This helps in understanding sequences, in working memory and in visual-spatial skills," Dr. Coles said. "We are avoiding rote memorization of math facts and focusing on the underlying concepts that are the foundation of math. We have not finished evaluating this program, but the initial feedback is very positive."

See other story: Fetal Brains Suffer Badly From Effects of Alcohol


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