Study Links Birth Brain Defects With Maternal Drug Use

By McCarton Ackerman 11/04/14

Researchers found that recreational drug use during pregnancy can potentially lead to newborn birth defects.

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It’s long been known that smoking and drinking during pregnancy poses serious health risks to a fetus, but a new study has linked maternal recreational drug use to serious brain birth defects in newborns.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, used hair samples from 517 British mothers in the London area.  About 40% of the mothers had babies with a birth defect possibly linked to recreational drug use, 18% had a baby with a birth defect not yet associated with recreational drug use, and the remainder had a child with no birth defects. Seventy-seven women tested positive for some type of illegal substance, with cannabis appearing in the hair samples of 68 of these women. Eighteen tested positive for cocaine, while one took MDMA, and another took ketamine.

About 35% of the women whose baby had a brain birth defect used recreational drugs at conception or during their pregnancy. Most of the drug use took place around conception and tapered off considerably by the first trimester, but half of the women who smoked marijuana continued to do so into their second trimester.

“The risks of alcohol and tobacco in pregnancy are relatively well-researched," said Dr. Anna David, lead researcher and a professor at the Institute of Women’s Health at University College London. "We hope that research into drug use will catch up now that we have demonstrated its relevance to babies' health and development."

However, the onus isn’t just on women to quit using harmful substances during pregnancy. A study released last month from the University of Southern Denmark found that toxic chemicals from alcohol and drugs can damage sperm to the point that altered genes are passed on to babies, leading to potential symptoms such as low birth weight, birth defects, and childhood cancers. Fetuses sired by males who drank excessively suffered abnormal organ and brain development in some cases.

"There are many potential sources of harm to fetal health that remain unexamined. When 60% of birth defects are of unknown origin, why are we not examining one obvious potential source of harm?" asked Cynthia Daniels of Rutgers University, an expert in the relation between a father and child's health. "If I was a young man, I would not drink beer and would not be smoking when I'm trying to conceive a child."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.