ADHD vs. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome: Kids' Learning Problems Differ

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Children with fetal alcohol syndrome, resulting from mom drinking too much alcohol during pregnancy, have often been lumped together with ADHD kids, as both disorders include behavioral problems for kids.

Now, researchers have found that children with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) tend to have trouble retaining information, while children with prenatal alcohol exposure tend to have trouble learning information to begin with.

The study shows that children with two separate conditions both have problems with learning, but in different ways, said study researcher Sarah N. Mattson, a psychology professor at San Diego State University in California.

"Determining similarities and differences between [fetal alcohol spectrum disorders from prenatal alcohol exposure] and ADHD will help us better identify children affected by alcohol by not confusing them with ADHD," Mattson told MyHealthNewsDaily.

(Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders include a range of disorders linked to prenatal alcohol exposure , the most severe of which is fetal alcohol syndrome.)

Then, parents and doctors can develop more specific treatment by focusing on the known strengths and weaknesses of children who are affected by either disorder, she said.

The study will be published in the June 2011 issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research.

Learning and remembering information

Mattson and her colleagues gave the California Verbal Learning Test-Children's Version to three groups of 22 children each. The test required the children, ages 7 to 14, to learn and remember a list of words.

One group of children had a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder and ADHD, one group had just ADHD, and one group was neither exposed to alcohol as a fetus nor had ADHD. Researchers matched the children by age, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and right- and left-handedness (handedness has been linked to behavioral problems), according to the study.

Researchers found that the children with ADHD and a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder had trouble learning information at first but were better able to recall what they learned later on compared with those with ADHD only, Mattson said.

Children with just ADHD , on the other hand, could recall information soon after they learned it, but weren't easily able to retain the information, according to the study.

Children with prenatal alcohol exposure have "inefficient encoding of verbal material," Mattson said, which means they may have trouble remembering and following instructions given by their teachers and parents.

Kids with ADHD have trouble accessing stored information in their brains, Mattson said, meaning they may not be able to recall information out of thin air, but they might be able to pick something out from a few different choices.

Explaining the differences

Past research suggests that general learning problems are associated with deficits in the frontal-subcortical regions of the brain, which are located deep in the brain near your forehead, Mattson said. In past studies, patients with damaged frontal-subcortical brain regions had trouble learning and retrieving information.

However, both conditions studied include abnormalities throughout the brain that could account for the problems, said Jeffrey R. Wozniak, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, who was not associated with the study.

Nevertheless, the study provides information that is valuable for both parents and teachers in understanding learning deficits of kids with prenatal alcohol exposure, Wozniak said.

"The strategies used to maximize their learning might be different for children" with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders than for those with ADHD , Wozniak told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Pass it on: Kids with ADHD have different learning problems than kids with a fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @AmandaLChan.

Amanda Chan
Amanda Chan was a staff writer for Live Science Health. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.