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Research Uncovered Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
by Carey Quan Gelernter
Jan 18, 1997
San Diego Union Tribune
By strict definition, fetal-alcohol syndrome includes babies born with specific patterns of growth deficiencies, facial features and brain damage.

Lifetime care for one baby born with FAS is estimated at $1.4 million. How was the first such baby so identified as having fetal-alcohol syndrome? In 1968, psychologist Ann Streissguth was working in Boston on "the final, end-all study of what can happen to a baby prenatally that can affect its neurological development." But not one question was asked about alcohol.

"There was absolutely no knowledge that alcohol could be teratogenic" -- that is, an agent that causes malformation of a fetus, says Streissguth today. A few years later, Streissguth moved to the University of Washington. There, Christy Ulleland, then a pediatric resident, had become interested in babies with what is technically known as failure to thrive. In 1972, she noticed that many of the babies had alcoholic mothers. Going through the delivery records at Harborview Medical Center, she found more babies that fit the pattern.

Meanwhile, Dr. David Smith and his pediatric fellow, Kenneth Jones, asked to have all the children examined at one time.

"You could see the similarities, the little eyes, flat faces, small heads," recalls Streissguth.

They were hyperactive, unfocused, disorganized. "They looked like brain-damaged kids. I had worked with a lot of kids from the ghetto, and in Head Start, and I knew what impoverished kids, kids who were not stimulated, looked like; these were not kids whose moms hadn't played with them or given them the right toys. These kids were different."

As the enormity of the realization that alcohol could be such a damaging agent sunk in, Streissguth says, "I was overwhelmed with the thought -- of all the women that didn't know about it."

More records searching, and the recruitment of one more child in Akron, Ohio, brought the number of children in their study to 11.

The University of Washington team coined the term "fetal-alcohol syndrome" to describe what they'd found, and published their findings in 1973 in the British medical journal Lancet. With the Lancet article, others who'd been grappling with the same findings came forward. One was Paul Lemoine of Nantes, France, who in 1968 had published a study of children born to alcoholic mothers who had similar features and behaviors.

By 1978, in a paper written by Smith, now deceased, and Dr. Sterling Clarren, FAS was described as "the most frequently known teratogenic cause of mental deficiency in the Western world."