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Prenatal meth exposure drastically reduces cognitive performance in children

Natural News, April 10, 2015

Children exposed to methamphetamine ("meth") in the womb are significantly more likely to experience cognitive difficulties at age seven, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute (LA BioMed) and published in the Journal of Pediatrics in March 2014.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Center on Research Resources.

Use in pregnancy widespread

According to the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, more than 16 million people over the age of 12 have used meth in the United States alone. Of these, 19,000 were pregnant at the time. Other statistics reveal that 5 percent of all pregnant women between the ages of 15 and 44 used some form of illicit drugs during their pregnancy.

Like other drugs, meth can cross the placental barrier and affect the fetus directly. Meth use during pregnancy can also reduce the nutrients and oxygen available to the fetus.

A prior Swedish study found that children exposed to meth in utero had lower than average IQ scores and school performance, and higher than average rates of aggressive behavior. However, the study did not directly compare the study participants to a control group that had not been exposed to meth.

In order to correct this oversight, LA BioMed researchers conducted a new study on children enrolled in the Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle (IDEAL) Study, conducted at sites in Iowa, Oklahoma and Hawaii (all states with prevalent meth use). The IDEAL study has been following children exposed to meth prenatally since 2002.

For the current analysis, the researchers compared 151 children who had been prenatally exposed with 147 children who had not been exposed to meth. They found that the children whose mothers had used meth during pregnancy were 2.8 times more likely to have cognitive problems, as diagnosed using the Connors' Parents Rating Scale.

"These problems include learning slower than their classmates, having difficulty organizing their work and completing tasks and struggling to stay focused on their work," lead researcher Dr. Lynne M. Smith said. "All of these difficulties can lead to educational deficits for these children and potentially negative behavior as they find they cannot keep up with their classmates."

The study highlights the importance of early intervention for children prenatally exposed to meth, in order to minimize these symptoms.

"By identifying deficits early in the child's life, we can intervene sooner and help them overcome these deficits to help them have greater success in school and in life," said Dr. Smith. "Through the IDEAL Study, we are able to track these children and better understand the long-term effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure."

Neurological damage

Prior studies have suggested that children exposed to meth in utero experience measurable neurological damage as a result. Another IDEAL analysis, completed in 2011, found that newborns who had been exposed to meth in the womb were harder to arouse, and then harder to calm down once they had become upset.

"There are certain characteristics that are real clues to whether or not the baby does well later on. Stress is one of them, arousal is another," researcher Dr. Barry M. Lester said.

Another study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2010, performed magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans on children exposed to meth in utero. The brains of the children were smaller than normal in certain regions also known to shrink in response to fetal alcohol exposure. In some cases, the effects of meth were more severe than those of alcohol. One of the regions most affected was the caudate nucleus, which plays a key role in learning, memory, motor control and motivation.