By Michael Haederle

UNM’s New Mexico Alcohol Research Center Receives $7.3 million in Grant Funding to Study Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

The New Mexico Alcohol Research Center (NMARC) at The University of New Mexico Health Sciences has received a five-year, $7.3 million extension of its National Institutes of Health program grant, supporting the center’s ongoing study of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). 

“We’re looking at mechanisms responsible for the effects of alcohol on the brain,” said center director C. Fernando Valenzuela, MD, PhD, professor in the Department of Neurosciences in the UNM School of Medicine. “We mainly focus on neurological, behavioral and neuro-psychiatric deficits.”

FASD, which results from prenatal exposure to alcohol, can lead to significant neurological deficits and is widespread in New Mexico and across the nation, he said.

“FASD is the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder, and in theory, it’s completely preventable.”
C. Fernando Valenzuela, MD, PhD, Professor, Dept. of Neurosciences, UNM School of Medicine

“It’s the most prevalent neurodevelopmental disorder, and in theory, it’s completely preventable,” Valenzuela said. But because many women of reproductive age drink alcohol, and because it can take a month for a woman to know she is pregnant, the developing fetus can receive significant alcohol exposure before the pregnant woman has had a chance to alter her consumption.

The grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism represents the third round of full funding for the center, which was launched in 2008 with a three-year exploratory grant, he said. Researchers affiliated with the center have searched for unique biomarkers to diagnose the condition and evaluated potential therapeutic interventions such as music training, the use of special video games and other exercises thought to enhance cognition.

The next phase will focus on some of the unique deficits experienced by those living with FASD.

“We’re trying to understand how alcohol exposure in utero affects visual spatial memory and cognitive flexibility,” Valenzuela said. “Sometimes, memory is not so good and the ability to learn things related to space and time can be impaired.”

NMARC brings together faculty members from across UNM Health Sciences and the University at large, including the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, the College of Pharmacy and the Department of Psychology, he said. It also has a partnership with researchers at the Mind Research Network, who provide critical neuro-imaging support.

NMARC also partners with the UNM Center for Development & Disability (CDD) in the Department of Pediatrics, Valenzuela said. Because CDD provides important clinical care for children and adolescents with developmental disorders, it serves as an important pathway for recruiting participants in neuroimaging studies and helps to inform research priorities.

“The human work is informing our laboratory studies,” he said. “That’s the strength of the center. They tell us, ‘Look, this is what we’re seeing in the clinic. These are the problems we are facing.’ Then we focus and try to research on that.”

Valenzuela emphasizes that individuals with FASD have many strengths. “The field is shifting in recognizing that,” he said. “They have tremendous abilities that we can foster and facilitate and enrich. The reason we are shifting is because we are getting more and more people with FASD at the table with us, working in advisory meetings.”

 NMARC is also an important resource for the University and New Mexico as a whole, he said, because it generates employment for scientists, research technicians and students and provides important training opportunities, he said.

“I’m very excited for the field and what we can contribute to help with this condition,” Valenzuela said. “I’m also excited to be working with this talented group of scientists and trainees to do something really good that for the field.”

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