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Prenatal cocaine exposure affects the behaviour of the child

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Researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine conducted several studies highlighting the harmful effects of cocaine use during pregnancy on children. Exposure to cocaine during pregnancy affects both brain and behavior of offspring , according to the study published in Biological Psychiatry. Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry, emphasized that this study is a warning for pregnant women who use cocaine. He added that we need a long-term perspective to assess these risks because the brain that appears typically at birth may eventually develop abnormally.

Experiments on animals have shown that exposure to cocaine during development in the womb causes many disturbances in normal brain development and negatively affects the child’s behavior. It was not possible to perform such studies in humans due to ethical considerations but the research that was conducted showed that children who were exposed to cocaine in utero, had problems regarding attention, memory, stress, emotional control, etc. Researchers also believe that these children are more likely to consume illegal substances.


researchers Yale University School of Medicine , led by Dr. Rajita Sinha , reached these conclusions after a study on adolescents who were prenatally exposed to cocaine and adolescents who were not exposed. They wanted to examine the differences in brain gray matter between these two groups of teenagers and see the probability of addiction.

They included in the study 42 adolescents exposed in utero ( aged between 14 and 17 years) who were part of a long term cohort followed from birth, and 21 non-exposed adolescents . To evaluate the gray matter of the brain, the researchers conducted several neuroimaging investigations on participants . Also, because researchers wanted to see what is the risk of addiction in participants exposed to cocaine in utero, they questioned the teenagers about the use of any illicit substances. In addition, urine samples were collected for toxicological analysis .

After processing the information, the researchers confirmed their hypothesis, namely that , compared to non-exposed adolescents, teens exposed to cocaine during development in the womb have a smaller volume of gray matter in brain regions involved in attention, memory and executive functions. It was also found that the volume of gray matter was related to the initiation of illicit substance use.

What is interesting is that a decrease in gray matter volume of 1 ml increased the probability of initiating substance use by 69.6 % to 83.6% , depending on what a brain region was involved.  “One can speculate that in the future, with additional validation, such specific brain alterations may serve as biomarkers of risk that can be targeted to prevent drug use and abuse,” Sinha concluded.