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Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs

Your Baby's Brain on Drugs

It should be basic knowledge that babies, while still developing in their mothers’ wombs are exposed to everything the mother is exposed to. That being said, even cigarette and marijuana smoke affect your baby’s brain.

There have been numerous behavioral studies that clearly indicate that exposure to drugs, alcohol and tobacco in utero is bad for a baby’s developing brain. However, specific brain effects have been are difficult to pin down. That is because users often use more than one substance, and there are other variables and factors to consider such as demographic factors like poverty, because these too can influence brain development.

Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs: Research

NIH has funded a study using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, which was led by Children’s Hospital Boston neurologist Michael Rivkin, MD, to try to see the effects of your baby’s brain on drugs. The scans found that prenatal exposure to cocaine, alcohol, marijuana or tobacco (alone or in combination) may have effects on brain structure that persist into early adolescence. These findings are of public health importance because it is estimated that more than 1 million babies born annually in the United States have been exposed to at least one of these substances before birth.

The study included brain scans of 35 adolescents, averaging 12 years old at the time of the MRIs, had been prenatally exposed to cocaine, marijuana, alcohol or tobacco. The study followed pregnant mothers and their babies up until this time. A combination of social history and urine testing of the mother, and/or urine or stool testing of the infants at birth was done in order to confirm prenatal exposure to substances.

Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs: Findings

Reductions in cortical gray matter and total brain volumes were associated with prenatal exposure to cocaine, alcohol or cigarettes. Another important finding was although volume reductions were associated with each of these three substances; they were not associated with any one of these substances alone. What that that means is that the effects of these drugs were found to be additive, meaning that the more substances a baby’s brain was exposed to in utero, the greater the reduction in brain volume.

Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs: Tobacco and Nicotine

Tobacco smoke contains nicotine, arsenic, various tar products, and carbon monoxide. All of these are damaging to the body, and all of them can reach the baby through the placenta. For example, nicotine causes problems with the flow of blood through the blood vessels. Smoking during pregnancy may limit blood flow through the placenta and thus slow the baby’s growth and brain development. Research also shows that babies exposed to smoke are twice as likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs: Alcohol

Besides physical development issues, alcohol also affects a baby’s brain. Children who were exposed to alcohol before birth can be born with what is known as Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, or FAS, for short. Children with FAS have telltale physical features such as cleft palate, and noticeable defects of the face, arms, and hands. But your baby’s brain on drugs such as alcohol can also leave them with intellectual disabilities and are often hyperactive and have limited attention spans. FAS children can suffer lifelong illness because of their mother’s use of alcohol.

Your Baby’s Brain on Drugs: Illicit Drugs

Cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other narcotic pain killers (such as oxycodone and hydrocodone), methamphetamine, PCP, and designer drugs are all toxic to your baby. Your baby will suffer painful withdrawal symptoms after being born and, again it is difficult to say at this time exactly what each drug does because mothers who use drugs tend to use more than just one substance. It is safe to say, though, that your baby’s brain on drugs will lead to possible life-long issues such as intellectual disabilities like mental retardation and autism.



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