Previous studies regarding the long-term effects of a pregnant mother’s cocaine use typically look at school-aged children and adolescents. The biggest issue with these studies is that by the time the children are studied, many other influences may have already affected their behavior aside from the mother’s drug use. An April 2015 study, however, was able to bypass such issues by studying newborn “cocaine babies” and provide a possibly more accurate research.
The recent study, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience, is the first to show exactly how maternal drug use during pregnancy alters the organization of the newborn brain. Andrew Salzwedel, Karen Grewen, Clement Vachet and other authors studied 152 newborn children as they were put under functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a neuroimaging procedure using MRI technology that measures brain activity. Of the participating children, 45 had been prenatally exposed to cocaine and 43 have been exposed to other drugs including nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and antidepressant medications.
Both groups of children displayed changes in the functional organizations of their brains. The researchers, however, were particularly interested in the connections between the frontal cortex and the amygdala, an area of the brain that is key to recognizing fear, learning and memory (especially the learning and recall of situations that provoke fear, risk or anxiety), and suppression of certain types of behaviors. The cocaine-exposed children displayed a specific alteration not present in other drug-exposed children between the network connecting the amygdala to the prefrontal areas of the brain.
This particular brain network is believed to play an important role in the regulation of arousal. For instance, an individual who is faced with a particular decision that may result in some type of potential risk or harm may experience high levels of physical arousal or anxiety regarding making such a choice. The new study finds that cocaine exposure may specifically affect the organization of a brain pathway involved in this experience.
Compared to those exposed to drugs other than cocaine and those not exposed to drugs at all, existing research suggests that cocaine babies may tend to be more impulsive or not think things through when confronted with certain situations. Now, for the first time in history, experts are able to point out a specific brain alteration that can definitively be determined to occur with prenatal cocaine exposure and find the direct connection to the observed behavioral traits cocaine babies tend to show in later life.
While the research is preliminary, it may be pivotal in the search for physical markers that can identify later risky behaviors in individuals. At the same time, this new knowledge can help fuel the development of early intervention programs for at-risk individuals aimed at improving their decision-making as well as various other behaviors.