Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: An overview from the glia perspective

Clare J. Wilhelm, Marina Guizzetti

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

74 Scopus citations


Alcohol consumption during pregnancy can produce a variety of central nervous system (CNS) abnormalities in the offspring resulting in a broad spectrum of cognitive and behavioral impairments that constitute the most severe and long-lasting effects observed in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Alcohol-induced abnormalities in glial cells have been suspected of contributing to the adverse effects of alcohol on the developing brain for several years, although much research still needs to be done to causally link the effects of alcohol on specific brain structures and behavior to alterations in glial cell development and function. Damage to radial glia due to prenatal alcohol exposure may underlie observations of abnormal neuronal and glial migration in humans with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), as well as primate and rodent models of FAS. A reduction in cell number and altered development has been reported for several glial cell types in animal models of FAS. In utero alcohol exposure can cause microencephaly when alcohol exposure occurs during the brain growth spurt a period characterized by rapid astrocyte proliferation and maturation; since astrocytes are the most abundant cells in the brain, microenchephaly may be caused by reduced astrocyte proliferation or survival, as observed in in vitro and in vivo studies. Delayed oligodendrocyte development and increased oligodendrocyte precursor apoptosis has also been reported in experimental models of FASD, which may be linked to altered myelination/white matter integrity found in FASD children. Children with FAS exhibit hypoplasia of the corpus callosum and anterior commissure, two areas requiring guidance from glial cells and proper maturation of oligodendrocytes. Finally, developmental alcohol exposure disrupts microglial function and induces microglial apoptosis; given the role of microglia in synaptic pruning during brain development, the effects of alcohol on microglia may be involved in the abnormal brain plasticity reported in FASD. The consequences of prenatal alcohol exposure on glial cells, including radial glia and other transient glial structures present in the developing brain, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes and their precursors, and microglia contributes to abnormal neuronal development, reduced neuron survival and disrupted brain architecture and connectivity. This review highlights the CNS structural abnormalities caused by in utero alcohol exposure and outlines which abnormalities are likely mediated by alcohol effects on glial cell development and function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number65
JournalFrontiers in Integrative Neuroscience
Issue numberJAN2016
StatePublished - Jan 11 2016


  • Animal models
  • Astrocyte
  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders
  • Fetal alcohol syndrome
  • Microglia
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Oligodendrocyte

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sensory Systems
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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