Background: Although high-dose prenatal alcohol exposure is related to cogn
itive and behavioral impairments in children and adolescents with fetal alc
ohol syndrome, there is relatively little research on the effects of modera
te drinking during pregnancy. We examined learning, memory, and behavior in
adolescent rhesus monkeys prenatally exposed to moderate levels of alcohol
, psychological stress, or both alcohol and stress.
Methods: Forty adolescent rhesus monkey subjects were derived from four gro
ups of female rhesus monkeys that (1) consumed alcohol throughout gestation
; (2) experienced prenatal stress; (3) experienced prenatal stress and alco
hol consumption; or (4) control group (no alcohol, no stress). The subjects
were assessed for number of trials required to reach 90% criterion of corr
ect responses on nonmatching-to-sample task (NMS), followed by trials with
delays of 30, 60, or 120 sec. Ratings of behavior during testing were made
after each session.
Results: Subjects exposed to moderate prenatal alcohol required significant
ly more trials to reach criterion on the acquisition phase of the NMS task
but had no difficulty with delays. Prenatally stressed monkeys showed lower
response inhibition or less behavioral restraint, whereas prenatal alcohol
plus stress monkeys showed higher activity level and stereotypies compared
with controls. High scores on neonatal measures of orientation (attending
to novel stimuli) and motor maturity and low scores on irritability, activi
ty, stereotypies, and impulsivity during acquisition were correlated with f
ewer trials to criterion on acquisition of NMS.
Conclusions: NMS trials required to reach criterion and behavior during tes
ting are sensitive to moderate-level prenatal alcohol exposure in monkeys.
The most adverse behavioral outcomes (hyperactivity and stereotypies) were
associated with prenatal alcohol plus stress, raising concerns that environ
mental stress might provide the context within which fetal alcohol exposure
could promote adverse behavioral outcomes. These effects occurred in the a
bsence of either facial deformities or retarded physical growth.