Date of Award
Open Access Dissertation
School of Social Science, Politics, and Evaluation
Andrew R. A. Conway
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
Dissertation or Thesis Committee Member
© 2023 Dawn M Moore
ABCD Study, Academic performance, Teratogen exposure, Working memory, Tobacco
The healthy development of executive function in adolescents is essential for controlling attention and behavior, especially as children confront the challenges associated with puberty, social situations, parental pressures, academic pursuits, and the transition to adulthood. For children prenatally exposed to teratogenic substances (i.e., certain prescription medications, maternal infections or conditions, alcohol, tobacco, etc.), higher-order cognitive skills may be compromised, resulting in an increased risk of delayed developmental functioning, deficits in cognitive and executive functioning, and poorer academic outcomes. Research findings suggest that even low-to-moderate levels of alcohol and/or tobacco use during pregnancy are associated with poorer academic performance, lower IQ scores, and reduced performance on various cognitive tasks. This more common, yet less understood and under-reported, low-to-moderate level of substance use is an area of growing concern. To that end, using data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD, 2021), this dissertation explored the association between low-to-moderate prenatal alcohol and/or tobacco exposure and adolescents’ subsequent executive function and academic performance at two separate time points in their development. The study examined whether prenatal teratogen exposure (i.e., parent-reported alcohol and/or tobacco use) was associated with negative effects on adolescents’ performance on various executive function tasks from the NIH Toolbox-Cognition Battery and/or their average grades in school. Furthermore, given that executive function has not been consistently defined within the psychological literature, with the field of developmental psychology defining executive function more broadly (i.e., cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibitory control; see Diamond, 2013; Zelazo, 2015) and cognitive psychology defining executive function more narrowly (i.e., viewing working memory as a higher-level, superordinate construct that is separate from executive function; see Conway & Engle, 1994; Conway et al., 2021), this study also examined executive function from these competing perspectives. Additionally, the study used a longitudinal approach to explore the role of timing in any associations between teratogen exposure and cognitive outcomes, analyzing data from two separate collection periods: baseline and 2-year follow-up. The overarching hypothesis was that low-to-moderate prenatal substance exposure would be associated with reduced executive function task performance and reduced average grades at both baseline and the 2-year follow-up, with a greater reduction in executive function task performance in the broadly defined models of executive function (relative to the narrowly defined models of executive function). Three separate studies, distinguished by types of prenatal exposure (i.e., Study 1: alcohol, Study 2: tobacco, or Study 3: combined alcohol AND tobacco), explored this overarching prediction using path analyses. For Studies 1 (alcohol) and 2 (tobacco), these hypotheses were not supported; no significant relationships were detected between low-to-moderate prenatal alcohol or tobacco exposure and either executive function or average grades. In contrast, the results of Study 3 (combined alcohol AND tobacco) presented mixed findings in terms of supporting the hypothesis. Prior to controlling for demographic variables, prenatal combined exposure was negatively associated with the broad definition of executive function at baseline and with average grades at the 2-year follow-up. These findings suggest that prenatal exposure to both alcohol AND tobacco had a small, but significant negative effect on both academic outcomes and executive function when broadly defined. An important aspect of this study explored executive function from two theoretical perspectives (i.e., developmental versus cognitive psychology). Analyses from these two perspectives yielded a recurring finding related to the importance of working memory, specifically as an effective predictor of academic performance. By deconstructing executive function, this study offers a novel approach to exploring the cognitive abilities measured in the ABCD Study and has provided new insights into the connection between working memory, executive function, academic performance, and prenatal teratogen exposure.
Moore, Dawn Michele. (2023). Longitudinal Effects of Prenatal Teratogen Exposure on Executive Function and Academic Outcomes. CGU Theses & Dissertations, 550. https://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgu_etd/550.