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Friday, September 30, 2022

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Ed Riley and Sarah Mattson (right) at the FASD Study Group annual meeting in San Diego. Ed Riley and Sarah Mattson (right) at the FASD Study Group annual meeting in San Diego.

Professor Honored for Work on Prenatal Alcohol Exposure

SDSU neuropsychologist Sarah Mattson explores the cognitive and behavioral effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.
By Michael Price

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) presents many challenges, including a suite of cognitive and behavioral deficits, to people who grow up with the disorder, as well as their families and caretakers. Yet FASD is also notoriously difficult for health researchers to diagnose and investigate. 

Some families do not feel comfortable seeking help, and researchers are still studying how the disorder can manifest itself across a spectrum of symptoms and characteristics. Despite these difficulties, progress continues to be made thanks to scientists like San Diego State University neuropsychologist Sarah Mattson, who last month was recognized by the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Study Group for her outstanding research contributions to the field.

During its annual meeting in San Diego last month, the group, a specialized affiliate of the broader Research Society on Alcoholism, gave Mattson its highest honor for lifetime achievement, the Henry L. Rosett Award. Mattson has been involved with the Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders Study Group since the early 1990s, and served as its president from 2001 to 2002.

Mattson received her Ph.D. in neuropsychology from the SDSU/UCSD Joint Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology and joined SDSU’s faculty in 2000. Since then, Mattson’s work has broadly focused on one question: How does prenatal alcohol exposure affect the cognitive and behavioral function in everyday life?

READ: SDSU Honored with Two San Diego Public Health Awards

Because it’s difficult to determine whether a child was exposed to alcohol before they were born, Mattson and her many graduate and undergraduate students delve into the specific cognitive and behavioral patterns of FASD such as attention deficits, difficulty with organization, memory problems, difficult with mathematics, developmental delays, impulsiveness and irritability. 

Many people with FASD also have telltale facial characteristics, but Mattson’s work, in conjunction with the Collaborative Initiative on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, is helping clinicians spot FASD even in the absence of these physical distinctions.

Mattson, whose work is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is also working on an app for doctors and clinicians that can help these non-specialists to recognize signs that suggest a child may have FASD so they can recommend them for formal evaluation.

“There’s still a lot of stigma surrounding this disorder, do we don’t want to misidentify a child as having FASD,” Mattson said, “but we don’t want to miss anyone, either.”

The upshot of this research is that health workers and researchers are gaining more tools to help identify children with FASD, even when nothing is known about their prenatal experiences.

“It all builds on the work of others, especially the work done by those who have earned this award before me,” said Mattson. “It’s an elite group, and it’s an honor to be mentioned alongside them.”

Media Contacts:

La Monica Everett-Haynes
Media Relations Director

Cory Marshall
Media Relations Officer