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Building from strengths Add to ...

When science brings hope to a group that has precious little to hope for, it's worth pausing to take note. Children who suffer from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder may one day be able to make some repairs to their damaged brains, Canadian brain scientists say. How? Through play that restores some of the white matter that forms the brain's connective tissue.

Refreshingly, scientists such as Chris Bertram, at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, B.C., focus not on the children's weaknesses, such as anger control, but their strengths, particularly in fine motor skills. "All are good at something," The Globe's Anne McIlroy reports, and whether that is using a pair of tweezers to grasp tiny plastic bones in the game Operation, or playing the video game Dance Dance Revolution, they can by enhancing those strengths also improve their abilities in other areas, such as paying attention or controlling their impulses. Dr. Bertram calls this technique transfer of learning.

What can reasonably be expected to come out of this? Not a healed brain, but - with patience and perhaps luck - a reduction in the problems that are so rife among FASD children, of dropping out of school, abusing drugs and alcohol, breaking the law and mental illness. The secondary problems associated with FASD would be lessened. Alongside the advances in learning, drug treatments may one day be available to improve the thinking skills of those with FASD. The Canadian government is giving $19.5-million over five years to NeuroDevNet, a new national centre of excellence, for research focusing on FASD, autism spectrum disorder and cerebral palsy. Commendably, Canada is moving to the forefront of research that holds promise for many children.

Fetal alcohol syndrome was given its name in 1970; hope has taken four decades to arrive. FASD, the name given to a wide range of alcohol-related defects, is most common among Canada's native peoples, and is part of the reason why natives are so grossly overrepresented in provincial and federal jails. An estimated 300,000 people in Canada suffer from FASD, and 3,000 Canadian babies are born each year with it. As adults, they tend to fall through the cracks of support systems.

For children's play to reverse at least some of the seemingly irreversible effects of fetal alcohol damage is a powerful endorsement of a time-honoured feature of childhood.

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