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New Study Links Prenatal Cannabis Use to Potential Harm in Baby's Brain Development

TUESDAY, July 9, 2024 (HealthDay News) — New research indicates that cannabis use during pregnancy could negatively affect a child's brain development post-birth. A study published in the journal Nature Mental Health on July 4 revealed that brain imaging of children exposed to cannabis in the womb shows patterns consistent with reduced brain inflammation.

While inflammation in the brain might sound harmful, it plays a critical role in "pruning" — the natural process where the brain eliminates weaker or unnecessary neural connections as children transition from early childhood to puberty. Disruption of this process could interfere with normal brain development.

“We see evidence that cannabis exposure may influence the developing brain, consistent with associations with mental health,” explained David Baranger, a postdoctoral fellow at Washington University in St. Louis and a researcher in the study.

Previously, the same research team found that prenatal cannabis exposure could increase the risk of mental health issues, behavioral problems, and impaired brain function in children. This was reported in a 2020 study published in JAMA Psychiatry. However, the study could not determine if these risks were due solely to cannabis exposure, or if genetic and environmental factors also played a role.

To further investigate, researchers continued analyzing data from the clinical trial that formed the basis of the earlier findings. This trial included nearly 12,000 children across the United States and involved brain imaging at ages 9-10 and 11-12. Out of these children, approximately 370 were exposed to cannabis before their mothers knew they were pregnant, and 195 were exposed both before and after their mothers realized they were pregnant.

The latest findings suggest reduced inflammation in the brains of children whose mothers used cannabis, potentially impacting their brain development. However, Baranger cautioned that these results do not completely rule out other possible explanations. For instance, cannabis exposure in the womb might also accelerate brain aging, or other chemicals inhaled during cannabis use might contribute to developmental effects.

Baranger hopes that ongoing studies will provide more precise data on the effects of cannabis use during pregnancy.

In the meantime, he advises pregnant women or those considering pregnancy to discuss their cannabis use with their healthcare provider. “It’s important to consider all options and understand the potential risks,” Baranger said in a university news release.

Should pregnant women be warned against cannabis use due to potential brain development risks for the baby?

  • Yes, it's crucial to inform them of the risks.

  • No, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

  • Unsure, needs more discussion.


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