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Prenatal Methamphetamine Exposure Linked With Problems

December 21, 2012

In the latest findings from an ongoing study of the effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure on child development, primary caregivers reported more signs of increased emotionality, anxiety, and depression in exposed nonexposed children at ages 3 and 5 years. The caregivers also reported that at age 5, methamphetamine-exposed children were less able to sustain attention and more prone to act out aggressively or destructively than were nonexposed children.

Four young children in a group hug.

The NIDA-supported Infant Development, Environment, and Lifestyle (IDEAL) study has followed more than 200 children exposed to methamphetamine prenatally, along with matched controls, since birth. Previous IDEAL reports linked prenatal methamphetamine exposure to reduced neonatal size (“Methamphetamine Restricts Fetal Growth, Increases Lethargy in Newborns”) and alertness as well as deficits in fine motor skills through age 3 years.

The new findings reflect primary caregivers’ responses to the Child Behavior Checklist when the children were 3 and 5 years old. In both assessments, the caregivers rated the exposed children higher on emotional reactivity and anxiety/depression. In the assessment at age 5, the caregivers also scored the exposed children higher on externalizing behaviors (e.g., defiance, aggression) and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Although the average scores of exposed and nonexposed children were within normal limits, more exposed 5-year olds were in the range indicating a clinically significant externalizing problem.

The IDEAL investigators also reported that 26 children whose mothers used methamphetamine at least 3 days a week throughout their pregnancy scored lower on a test of inhibitory control at age 5.5 than did nonexposed children. The ability to resist an initial impulse or to stay focused despite distractions provides a foundation for academic and psychosocial success during later childhood and adolescence.

These data suggest that methamphetamine use during pregnancy could disrupt the normal development of the frontal cortex, says Dr. Linda LaGasse at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Disrupted frontal cortex circuitry may impair inhibitory control, which, in turn, may lead to attention deficits and behavioral problems. The researchers note that studies have pointed to such a sequence of effects following prenatal exposure to cocaine, a stimulant similar to methamphetamine.

Identifying such problems at an early age is critical to prevent a child’s emotional and behavioral difficulties from escalating, says Dr. LaGasse. “It is imperative that these children continue to be followed in order to understand the long-term implications of these findings. As we map out the developmental trajectories of these children, we will be able to identify key touchpoints for the development of preventive interventions,” says Dr. Lester, principal investigator of the IDEAL study.

This study was supported by NIDA grants; DA020801, DA020801-01, DA014948-10, DA014948, RR00425, RR11091, DA027841, and TR000124.

Sources

Derauf, C., LaGasse, L.L., Smith, L.M., Newman, E., Shah, R., Neal, C.R., Arria, A.M., Huestis, M.A., Della Grotta, S., Dansereau, L.M., Lin, H., Lester, B.M. Prenatal methamphetamine exposure and inhibitory control among young school-age children. Journal of Pediatrics 161(3):452–459, 2012. Abstract Available

LaGasse, L.L., Derauf, C., Smith, L.M., Newman, E., Shah, R., Neal, C., Arria, A., Huestis, M.A., Della Grotta, S., Lin, H., Dansereau, L.M., Lester, B.M. Prenatal methamphetamine exposure and childhood behavior problems at 3 and 5 years of age. Pediatrics 129(4):681–688, 2012. Abstract Available

This page was last updated December 2012

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