One researcher at The University of New Mexico is leading the charge to better care for and understand a diagnosis which affects dozens of babies taking their first breath.
Psychology Associate Professor Benjamin Clark is studying memory loss in those affected by Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs).
These are a set of intense morphological, neurobiological and cognitive abnormalities in newborns exposed to alcohol while in the womb.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates anywhere from 1 to 5 school-aged children could face learning disabilities as a result of FASDs.
Clark is tackling what he believes is one of the most prevalent issues in this population–deficits in spatial learning and memory. It’s also one of the first investigations of its kind.
“Deficits in spatial learning and memory may ultimately reflect alcohol-induced alterations in a brain region called the hippocampus, which is known to have an important role in encoding and retaining learned information,” Clark said.
That’s because alcohol exposure or prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) impacts neural development, hitting the ability to learn and retain information regarding environment locations.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism pledged its support to this critical research with a $1.5 million grant. The New Mexico Alcohol Research Lab is also helping. Clark says the work is being done in collaboration with Dan Savage at UNM’s Health Science Campus and Aaron Wilber at Florida State University.
“The long-term goal of our research program is to identify the brain mechanisms of spatial learning and memory impairments after moderate PAE,” he said.
This project runs through at least Jan. 2027 and is also being led by multiple undergraduate and graduate students, including Lilliana Sanchez, Gabriela Acosta and Tia Donaldson.
While the team is confident there is a direct, established link between altered memory and spatial learning when it comes to PAE, they are seeking to uncover what goes on in the brain exactly when exposed to alcohol.
“The brain systems related to impaired spatial learning and memory in FASD and after prenatal alcohol exposure are not well understood,” Clark said. “The present set of studies will take steps toward identifying these brain systems and the precise functional changes to these brain systems.”
Clark believes gaining a multi-level understanding of PAE’s impact on the nervous system will assist in creating tools for targeted intervention before FASDs take root.
“It is critically important for the development of precise diagnostic tools and therapeutic interventions to help manage or reverse disordered brain states,” he said.
Previous studies, Clark said, have shown this action may take place deep within the temporal lobe, affecting the activity of a type of neuron called "place" cells located within the hippocampus.
“How these place cells are damaged after prenatal alcohol exposure and how these deficits are related to impairments in navigation is not well understood,” he said. “We are specifically interested in how changes to the normal activity of place cells leads to spatial memory impairments in FASDs.”
Testing this theory further involves monitoring the neural signals emitted by hippocampal neurons during spatial learning and memory.
“This proposal will help us develop a new area of study and has the potential to stimulate new strategies for interventions that can be developed and tested in preclinical models but can also be developed for human patient populations,” Clark said.
Clark will use techniques that allow investigators to monitor the encoding of new memories by hippocampal neurons, and strengthening of these memories during offline stretches of time like sleep. He and his fellow researchers will then look if moderate PAE induces disturbances in the encoding and retention of these memories in hippocampal neurons.
“Our studies will also investigate how PAE affects the activity of place cells during sleep, when our memories are strengthened,” Clark said. “So our studies will really get at how changes in the normal activity of place cells related to impairments in the way memories are acquired and strengthened over time.”
Without normal place cell activity in the hippocampus, memory encoding and strengthening during rest may not be fully complete.
“The aims of this represent a critical step towards our long-term goal of identifying the brain mechanisms of spatial learning and memory deficits after moderate PAE,” Clark said. “But it will specifically provide insight into how moderate PAE affects hippocampal population activity critical for spatial learning and memory.
Once that is understood, Clark is aiming for a domino effect.
“Our hope is that by understanding how spatial memory deficits are related to changes in brain activity, we can develop strategies to improve memory,” he said.
Learn more about research underway regarding memory and spatial navigation at the Clark Lab.