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Boys’ Behavior Linked to Prenatal Cocaine Exposure

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Boys who were repeatedly exposed to cocaine while in their mother’s womb are more likely than girls or non-exposed children to be hyperactive or have other problem behaviors at six or seven years of age, new study findings show.

Studies conducted in animals have also shown that prenatal cocaine exposure seems to affect females and males differently, but studies in humans have yielded inconsistent results. In the current study, Dr. Virginia Delaney-Black and her team interviewed hundreds of pregnant women in the Detroit area about their drug use during each prenatal care visit, and then assessed the children’s behavior at an early school age. The study included 473 children, 204 of whom experienced at least some prenatal cocaine exposure. Twenty-four of these children had mothers whose urine tested positive for the drug at delivery, which suggests that these youngsters experienced persistent prenatal exposure to the drug. To evaluate the children’s behavior, the researchers relied on the children’s teachers’ ratings of 14 items believed to be associated with prenatal cocaine exposure, such as high distractibility and a severe inability to retain academic information. Overall, Delaney-Black, of Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and her colleagues found that boys exposed to cocaine in their mothers’ womb were much more hyperactive than those with no prenatal cocaine exposure. Their findings are published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Boys who experienced persistent cocaine exposure were also more likely to have delayed speech and language development or other problems in central processing, as well as problems with their motor skills and abstract thought than were their peers who experienced little or no exposure to the drug. These findings were not true of the girls involved in the study, the report indicates. Yet Delaney-Black said this gender discrepancy may be due more to her team’s analysis of the data than to reality. Cocaine-related problem behaviors are also evident among girls, she told Reuters Health, citing findings from an unpublished study. It has also been shown that cocaine-exposed girls have achievement-related problems, she said. On the other hand, because “boys in general tend to have worse behavior,” according to various scientific measurements, it is easier to see more of a problem with them, she said. Still, effects of cocaine exposure in the womb may not be as dire as many experts previously predicted during the cocaine epidemic in the US, in the late 1980s and early 1990s.Findings from one recent report indicated that children born to mothers who used cocaine heavily during pregnancy did not seem to have lower IQ scores than their peers, although they did have problems with some specific skills. Other researchers found that such cocaine-exposed youngsters may not have developmental delays in early life as some experts predicted. The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other, Delaney-Black said. During the cocaine epidemic, one national news magazine’s cover story stated that cocaine exposed children would be “forever damaged.” Years later experts said the complete opposite — that cocaine exposure in the womb would have “no permanent effect.” “That’s not quite right either,” Delaney-Black said. The effects of prenatal cocaine exposure are “not benign,” she said, but they are also not completely devastating. Women should still be cautioned about what they use during their pregnancy, she said. Since the current study was conducted in an inner-city area, the findings may not be generalizable “to kids with more access to more opportunities.” Delaney-Black said. For example, children from higher income families may benefit from enrichment programs, which are known to be effective in countering the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure, she said. (SOURCE: Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics: Reuters Health News: Charnicia Huggins: August 2004.)

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Posted On: 26 August, 2004
Modified On: 5 December, 2013

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