Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Sandra W. Jacobson

Second Advisor

John H. Hannigan


Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder refers to the spectrum of disorders resulting from prenatal alcohol exposure and is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation. Rodent studies have found that prenatal alcohol exposure impairs performance on the Morris water maze. This task requires the rodent to use distal room cues to locate a hidden platform in a pool of opaque water. Successful performance on this task is dependent upon hippocampal function. Rodents prenatally exposed to alcohol are impaired on the Morris water maze and show damage to hippocampal neurons. A human analogue of the Morris water maze, the virtual water maze has been created using computer-generated 3D virtual environments. Only one study has been conducted examining performance on the virtual water maze and FASD. This dissertation examined performance on the virtual water in three cohorts of individuals prenatally exposed to alcohol from Detroit and Cape Town, South Africa. Hypotheses were that children with a diagnosis of fetal alcohol syndrome or partial fetal alcohol syndrome, and those with a known history of prenatal alcohol exposure, but lacking the characteristic facial features will be impaired on the virtual water maze. Second, the amount of prenatal alcohol exposure will be negatively correlated with virtual water maze performance. Third, fetal alcohol-related reductions in hippocampal volume will mediate the relationship between FASD and virtual water maze performance. Lastly, prenatal alcohol related changes in testosterone will also mediate the relation between FASD and virtual water maze performance. Results indicated that both those with an FASD diagnosis were impaired on the virtual water maze. Degree of prenatal alcohol exposure was also correlated with poorer performance on the virtual water maze. These results were detected in the cohort with the heaviest levels of prenatal alcohol exposure. Right hippocampal volume was shown to be a mediator of the relation between FASD/prenatal alcohol exposure and virtual water maze performance. Testosterone was not related to virtual water maze performance. These data demonstrate that virtual water maze performance is sensitive to the effects of heavy prenatal alcohol exposure. Furthermore, impairments on this task may be due to fetal alcohol-related damage in the hippocampus.