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Pre-Natal Meth Exposure May Lead to Severe Brain Abnormalities

Although researchers have long known that prenatal exposure to drug abuse can be very harmful to the development of the fetal brain, a new study has found that prenatal exposure to methamphetamine can damage the fetal brain more severely than prenatal alcohol exposure. The study, published in the March 17 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that identifying vulnerable brain structures may help predict learning and behavioral problems in children who were exposed to meth.

One of the brain regions that was reduced more by meth than by alcohol exposure was the caudate nucleus, which plays an important role in memory, motivation, and motor control.

Lead author Elizabeth Sowell, PhD, of UCLA, said that their findings underscore the importance of getting drug addiction treatment for pregnant women, as methamphetamine use among pregnant women in fairy common. According to the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, about 19,000 meth users in the United States are pregnant women. Of these, almost half of them also drank alcohol.

For the study, the researchers studied the effects of meth by comparing brain scans of 61 children: 21 had been prenatally exposed to both alcohol and meth, 13 had been exposed heavily to alcohol, and 27 were not exposed to either substance. They found that the sizes and shapes of some brain structures were different, depending on exposure.

Prior studies have shown that some brain structures are smaller in the brains of children who were exposed to alcohol during their mother’s pregnancy. In this study, researchers found that the brains of meth-exposed children were similar to the alcohol-exposed children. Some areas were larger than normal. In meth-exposed children, an abnormal increase was found in the cingulate cortex, which plays a role in control and conflict resolution.

Based on brain scans and IQ data, the researchers could also predict a child’s past exposure to drugs. This could eventually help diagnose children with cognitive or behavioral problems who don’t have well-documented histories of drug exposure.

This research could also help researchers understand which brain regions are most vulnerable to injury during fetal development, as well as helping drug-exposed children improve their cognitive performance.

Source: Science Daily, Brain Abnormalities Identified That Result from Prenatal Methamphetamine Exposure, March 17, 2010

Posted on March 15th, 2010
Posted in Methamphetamines

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