Marijuana in pregnancy may be just as damaging as alcohol: Studies on mice suggest babies exposed to the drug are more likely to be born with small heads and have learning difficulties
- Several studies say prenatal exposure to marijuana may cause children to have distinguishing facial features and behavioral disabilities
- Research on animals showed that cannabis, with and without alcohol, resulted in abnormally small eyes and heads and more risk-taking behavior
- Pot use among expecting mothers nearly doubled between 2009 and 2017
- Although the effects of cannabis use during pregnancy is unclear, scientists say the results seem to indicate that the side effects on harmful
Marijuana use during pregnancy may trigger the same types of brain damage associated with alcohol, according to new research.
The findings, published today, come on the heels of data suggesting more and more expectant mothers are turning to the drug, which is marketed for morning sickness.
On Tuesday, scientists issued fresh calls for pregnant women to be wary of cannabis by publishing a catalog of animal-tested studies, suggesting exposure to the drug as a fetus may cause a child to have learning difficulties, and to be born with abnormally small eyes and heads.
The authors, who come from several universities, concede that we still know very little about how cannabis interacts with fetuses – including any possible benefits – but they say their findings seem to indicate enough harmful side effects to warrant concern.
New studies from several different universities show that fetuses exposed to cannabis in the womb may have abnormally small eyes and heads or engage in more risk-taking behavior (file image)
There are 50,000 teratogens – pre- and post-natal agents – which can affect a fetus’s development. Alcohol is one of them.
The substance in the mother’s blood passes straight to the baby’s blood. Ethanol, found in most alcoholic beverages, is a toxic substance which can kill cells in developing fetuses.
This can result in FASD – an umbrella term describing the range of effects that can appear in a person whose mother drank alcohol while pregnant.
Conditions can range from mild to severe, and include abnormal facial features, a small head size, hyperactive behavior, difficulty with attention and learning disabilities.
It’s estimated that around 40,000 newborns each year are affected by FASD, according to the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Meanwhile, cannabis use has been rising among pregnant women.
A report from Kaiser Permanente released earlier this month showed that marijuana use among expecting mothers almost doubled between 2009 and 2017.
Researchers found that about two percent used the drug in 2009 compared to 3.4 percent in 2017.
As public perception that marijuana is harmless has increased over time, many US women have come to believe that pot does little to no harm during pregnancy.
However, studies conducted in animal models seem to confirm many scientists’ hypothesis that there are harmful effects.
In one study, from North Carolina Central University in Durham, the team used a zebrafish model to look at the effects of cannabinoids and ethanol.
They exposed embryos to a cannabinoid agonist – which binds to cannabinoid receptors in the body – and alcohol both separately and together.
Cannabinoids alone, as well as when combined with lower levels of alcohol, were found to induce abnormally small eyes (micropthalmia) and heads (microcephaly).
Researchers also conducted behavioral testing at two months using the novel tank diving test.
Each fish was placed on the bottom of a new tank, where they usually tend to dwell for a few minutes, before gradually swimming up to the surface.
They found that cannabinoids and alcohol together resulted in the zebrafish spending much more time swimming near the top of the tank than the controls did.
This was correlated with risk-taking or anxiety-like behavior that children with FASD exhibit.
In another, from San Diego State University, the researchers look at the behavioral effects of alcohol and cannabinoids on rats during the equivalent of the third trimester.
Researchers found that when taken together, rats were more hyperactive than when taking either drug alone.
Additionally, the rats exposed to both alcohol and cannabinoids habituated to mazes and tests more slowly compared to the controls and spent more time figuring the maze out.
‘This is an important finding because we know these drugs interact, but we know relatively little regarding their effects during this critical period of brain development,’ said Dr Christina Chambers, a professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego and co-editor of the special Birth Defects Research issue.
‘FASD is one of the most complex developmental disabilities we face today.
‘Together, this collection of manuscripts represents the broad range of topics such as biomarkers, mechanisms, interactions with other factors, and long term effects that require further investigation in order to prevent and ameliorate the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, and to improve the lives of individuals with FASD.’
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