Prenatal Alcohol Exposure Alters Error Detection During Simple Arithmetic Processing: An Electroencephalography Study

Mattan S. Ben-Shachar, Michael Shmueli, Sandra W. Jacobson, Ernesta M. Meintjes, Christopher D. Molteno, Joseph L. Jacobson, Andrea Berger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: Arithmetic is the domain of academic achievement most consistently related to prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE). Error detection, an important aspect of arithmetic processing, can be examined in a mathematical verification task. Electroencephalographic (EEG) studies using such tasks have shown bursts of synchronized theta-band activity in response to errors. We assessed this activity for error detection in adolescents with PAE and typically developing (TD) matched controls. We predicted that the PAE group would show smaller theta bursts during error detection and weaker responses depending on the size of the error discrepancy. Methods: Participants’ mothers were recruited during pregnancy and interviewed about their alcohol consumption using a timeline follow-back interview. Participants were followed from infancy and diagnosed for fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) or partial FAS (PFAS) by expert dysmorphologists. EEGs were recorded for 48 adolescents during a verification task, which required differentiation between correct/incorrect solutions to simple equations; incorrect solutions had small or large deviations from correct solutions. Results: Performance was good–excellent. The PAE group showed lower accuracy than the TD group: Accuracy was inversely related to diagnosis severity. The TD and heavily exposed (HE) nonsyndromal groups showed the expected differentiation in theta-burst activity between correct/incorrect equations, but the FAS/PFAS groups did not. Degree of impairment in brain response to errors reflected severity of diagnosis: The HE group showed the same differentiation between correct/incorrect solutions as TD but failed to differentiate between levels of discrepancy; PFAS showed theta reactions only in response to large error discrepancies; and FAS did not respond to small or large discrepancies. Conclusions: Arithmetical error–related theta activity is altered by PAE and can be used to distinguish between exposed and nonexposed individuals and within diagnostic groups, supporting the use of numerical and quantitative processing patterns to derive a neurocognitive profile that could facilitate diagnosis and treatment of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)114-124
Number of pages11
JournalAlcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2020


  • Electroencephalography
  • Error Detection
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders
  • Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
  • Numerical Processing
  • Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Toxicology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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