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Prenatal Cocaine Exposure Impairs Development But Leaves Brain Intact

Update Date: Sep 25, 2013 10:51 AM EDT
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Doctors and researchers have known that using cocaine during pregnancy is detrimental to the health of the unborn child. Several studies have found that cocaine can slow down the child's development process. Cocaine can also lead to potentially fatal pregnancy complications. Researchers examined the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure once again in a new study. They found that prenatal cocaine exposure lowers the amount of grey matter in regions of the brain that are vital for development.

The researchers headed by Dr. Rajita Sinha from Yale University School of Medicine focused on the brain's gray matter and one's likelihood of abusing substances during adolescence. Since human experiments are highly difficult to conduct due to ethics, researchers usually must rely on animal models. For the study, the team was able to enlist the help of 42 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 17 who were exposed to cocaine in the womb. The children were already a part of another cohort that has been following the children since birth. The researchers compared the data from this sample set to 21 other adolescents that were never exposed to cocaine.

The research team administered questionnaires and tests to all of the participants. The questions measured the children's substance use. The tests included structural neuroimaging scans and urine toxicology tests. The research team discovered that the group of children who were exposed to cocaine before birth had lower gray matter volume in important areas of the brain that were responsible for emotion, memory, reward and executive function when compared to the non-exposed children. The children with cocaine exposure were also more likely to initiate substance use. The researchers calculated that for every 1-mL (0.3 ounces) decrease in gray matter volume, there was an increase in the likelihood of initiating substance use from 69.6 percent to 83.6 percent.

"This study may have an important message for pregnant women who use cocaine. It appears that we need to take a long-term perspective on the risks associated with prenatal exposure to cocaine: people whose brains may appear structurally typical at birth may develop abnormally," said Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry according to Medical Xpress. "While the significance of these structural changes is not clear, they merit further study."

The article is "Prenatal Cocaine Exposure and Gray Matter Volume in Adolescent Boys and Girls: Relationship to Substance Use Initiation" was published in Biological Psychiatry

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