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Prenatal Cocaine Exposure Affects Brain Development Through Adolescence

Science Highlight

September 05, 2014

Prenatal exposure to drugs can have long-term detrimental impact on the developing brain. Cocaine, for example, can readily cross the placenta and directly impact critical neurotransmitter systems in the fetal brain, including dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine systems. In a new study of the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure on brain structure, researchers found region-specific decreases in the volume of the cerebral cortex, thalamus, and putamen at 8-10 years of age in prenatally exposed children. Decreased volume of the thalamus and putamen, but not the cerebral cortex, was correlated with the reported level of maternal cocaine abuse. In addition, individuals who were prenatally exposed to cocaine had smaller average head circumference at birth through adolescence than unexposed children.

Mri brain scans with hand and pen pointing to image

These findings highlight the vulnerability of the developing brain when exposed to cocaine in utero, leading to significant changes that are evident at least through adolescence.

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