For most families, children's pictures are a way to fondly recall the past. But if an IUPUI research team headed by Liberal Arts alumna Elizabeth Moore has its way, a unique type of child photos won't by found in family albums-they will help make the future a little brighter for youngsters adversely affected by alcohol during their mother's pregnancy.
Sparked by Moore's graduate school dissertation, the team is tackling one of the major challenges of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), a less-well-known version called fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), by using cuttingedge technology with a potential low-tech application.
The goal is to use a 3-dimensional laser camera to provide a detailed "map" of a child's face, usually on youngsters ages 3 and up. The 'map' would then be used to develop a standard series of measurements that family doctors and pediatricians can use to compare figures gathered with a regular tape measure and determine whether a child may need to be tested in depth for the potential of FASD.
The multi-disciplinary IUPUI team includes: Moore; Richard Ward, her mentor from the School of Liberal Arts; principal investigator Tatiana Foroud of the School of Medicine (view related article); Shiaofen Fang and Jeff Huang of the School of Science; and Eric Wernert and Jeff Rogers of the School of Informatics.
"Most FAS cases are fairly easily identified by pediatricians and family doctors," says Ward, the associate dean for student affairs in Liberal Arts. FASD, though, is more insidious.
"A child may look perfectly normal, with no visible signs of FAS," adds Ward, a physical anthropologist. "But when we compare the facial patterns of children with FASD, their results correlate strongly with FAS-only these kids often go undiagnosed. They don't get the support for learning problems, behavioral problems, or any of the other circumstances that affect FAS kids."
For the members of the IUPUI team, that's unacceptable.
A student's perspective
The project, one of the dozens of alcohol-related research efforts that have made IUPUI a leader in the field, grew out of Moore's own interest in the work she did with Ward while both a student and a teacher at IUPUI. She refined that interest while earning a master's degree from Purdue and a Ph.D. from IU-Bloomington while preparing for her health-care career.
"Pediatricians and family doctors don't have time to do sophisticated, time-consuming evaluations, especially when they don't know for sure there even is a problem," says Moore, who earned her undergraduate degree from Liberal Arts in 1984, sharing her graduation ceremonies with her mother, who earned a business degree that same year. "If we're successful, we'll give them standard measurements to use as a tool to quickly see if more detailed testing is necessary."
The research team is testing a variety of measurements, seeking standards that will be effective in doctor's offices across the country. If the approach works, doctors will be able to use simple tape measures to see if more tests are needed.
"We've taken Elizabeth's original research and using 3-D laser technology to develop the exact measurements that are accurate," Ward says. "We take three separate shots of an infant's head, then 'weld' them together with CAD-CAM technology. Once that's done, we use electronic 'calipers' to take the exact measurements we need."
"Ultimately, we'd like to refine the technology to take four or five measurements," Ward adds. "The data gained could tell a parent whether a child was in the normal range, or suffered from either FAS or FASD."
If the 3-D technology proves valid, it could become one of the second round of tests in determining whether a child needs extra help. The 3-D approach has been tested in other places around the world, including Buffalo and San Diego in the U.S. plus Finland and South Africa, "making it truly global research," Ward says.
Pupil makes teacher proud
Now an applied research scientist at St. Vincent's Hospital in Indianapolis, Moore works on the project as a consultant, but Ward is convinced the project never would have been launched were it not for her dedication to the subject-something that "makes the teacher in me very proud."
"Elizabeth's dissertation found that there are a distinct pattern of facial measurements in children with FAS," Ward says. "But she also found that children who weren't obvious victims of FAS often mimicked the same pattern as FAS kids-just not to the same degree."
Because the team is using multiple approaches, it crosses significant school and discipline lines. Moore and Ward have worked in the fetal alcohol field extensively, while Foroud officially heads the team because of the genetic component of the inquiry: FAS and FASD both inhibit the development of an infant's brain and neurological function.
Wernert and Rogers provide the technological expertise in the 3-D camera and the advanced visualization laboratory, including CADCAM technology, which make it possible to develop the measurements the team needs to establish effective standards. Fang and Huang, specialists in facial recognition, are using their expertise to test alternative methods of assessing facial measurements that will trigger appropriate testing.
"We also are using brain imaging now, as well as psychometry and anthropometry to deal with the terrible consequences of alcohol abuse," Moore says. "These tools and techniques give us a chance to collect data on the different ways alcohol affects people's lives, particularly children."
Those "different ways" include Foroud's area of expertise, the genetics of the brain.
"We're trying to understand fully how the brain grows and develops, including in unborn children," says Foroud, who specializes in exploring the genetic functions of such diseases as alcoholism, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurobiological disorders. "What the fetal alcohol team is learning is part of that larger picture, but with the potential of a very specific-and beneficial-outcome."
Benefits for Graduates
Moore appreciates the opportunity she's had through IUPUI to work on a project so near and dear to her heart. But it's almost as big a kick to the "old student in me" to work with Ward, a man "who has really had an impact on my life.
"If it wasn't for Rick, I might never have found my way to the work I love to do, was meant to do," she says. "It's an awesome feeling, being part of the 'inner circle.' It can be intimidating at times; sometimes I still feel like I'm a student who's going to get tested on what we're discussing. But Rick always sees the bigger picture, and I feel like he's letting me see it, too!"
"Elizabeth is so typical of the different types of students we have at IUPUI," says Ward. "She came here as a nontraditional student in one field, but found her passion in another and was able to make a career out of it!"
The fetal alcohol project is helping Moore achieve her biggest professional goal: "to do a project that matters. "For all of us on the team, it's an opportunity to apply our skills to help young families and their children," Moore adds. "Even if we're successful, we know it won't reverse any damage alcohol caused to an infant during pregnancy. But if we can help a doctor intervene just a little bit earlier, maybe there can be enough improvement to give that child a richer, more fulfilling life."