Pregnancy, Cocaine, and Baby’s Brain

For years, we have known that pregnancy, cocaine abuse, and infant brain development are a harmful combination. And medical research has proven that the harmful effects of cocaine abuse by pregnant mothers can be long-term.

However, until now, scientists were unsure exactly what those effects were.

Researchers from the University of North Carolina found that babies of mothers who abuse cocaine may have altered brain function. The findings were published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

A prevalent role

The scientists looked at approximately 152 brain scans of infants exposed to drug abuse and realized that brain function within a region known as the amygdala was different from healthy babies’ brains. The amygdala is often linked to drug use, as one of its primary functions involves arousal. Many substances, including cocaine, have considerable effects on the amygdala. Cocaine alters the function of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, and causes greater amounts of them to be released. In return, people experience a feeling of euphoria, followed by feelings of depression and anxiety when they sober up. Because of these lows, people desire to reach that same high. Past research has found that these chemicals are released in regions of the amygdala.

Babies who were exposed to any type of drug use had alternate brain functioning compared to the healthy ones.

The study authors noted that this is the first study of its kind to realize that cocaine use by mothers can actually affect the brains of unborn babies.

Separating the groups

They discovered these findings by administering 152 magnetic resonance imaging scans on babies’ brains. Approximately 64 of the infants were not exposed to substance abuse, 45 were exposed to cocaine and 43 were exposed to other drug use. The scans proved that babies who were exposed to any type of drug use had alternate brain functioning compared to the healthy ones. However, babies whose mothers had abused cocaine had a few different neurological changes that no other group had.

How Does It Work?

The researchers realized that there was little communication between the amygdala and another region of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, which usually has control over the amygdala. That means the prefrontal cortex could have difficulty controlling emotion, arousal and other functions in that part of the brain. The researchers noted this may be why so many babies who were exposed to cocaine in the womb have an arousal dysregulation trait.

“This study may inform new strategies aimed at early risk identification and intervention,” said co-lead author Karen Grewen, Ph.D.

The researchers plan to continue their experiments on babies using these kinds of scans to determine what else they can learn and possibly create treatment methods.


References

“Prenatal Drug Exposure Affects Neonatal Brain Functional Connectivity” The Journal of Neuroscience, 8 April 2015, 35(14):58605869.

For more about infant brain development, see “10 Facts You Should Know About Every Baby’s Brain