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04-03-2012 | Psychology | Article

Pregnant ecstasy users risk developmental delay for infant



MedWire News: Women who use ecstasy while pregnant are putting their child at risk for developmental delay during infancy, say researchers in the first study of its kind.

Ecstasy use during pregnancy can also affect the chemical signaling that determines the fetus's gender, write Lynn Singer (Case Western University, Cleveland, Ohio, USA) and colleagues in Neurotoxicology and Teratology.

"The potential harmful effects of ecstasy exposure on prenatal and infant development have long been a concern," said Singer in a press statement. "The drug's negative effects are particularly risky for pregnant women, who may use the drug without being aware of their condition."

The study involved 96 women who described their intake of recreational drugs in the month prior to and during pregnancy using an adaptation of the Maternal Post-Partum Interview.

Overall, 28 mothers were classified as polydrug users (used recreational drugs during pregnancy and listed ecstasy, tobacco, cannabis, alcohol, and/or cocaine as examples) or mothers who only took methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA) during pregnancy, and 68 were classified as polydrug-using mothers who had not.

Child birth outcomes did not differ by group with regard to gestation period, birthweight, prematurity, length, or head circumference. However, MDMA-exposed infants were significantly more likely to be male, at 71% versus 46% in non-MDMA exposed infants.

The authors speculate this alteration in sex ratio could be caused by changes in parental hormone levels during the time of conception, an increase in XY embryos, enhanced loss of XX embryos, or survival of Y sperm over X sperm.

At 4 months, MDMA-exposed infants demonstrated significantly poorer motor quality than infants who had not been exposed to MDMA, at a Behavioral Rating Scale (BRS) Motor score, (which assessed muscle tone quality and fine and gross motor movements) of 58.9 compared with 74.1.

The researchers also explored the effects of lifetime use of MDMA, defined as the total number of ecstasy tablets consumed over the lifetime of each mother. They further divided MDMA users into heavier (n=13) and lighter (n=15) users based on a median split.

Heavily exposed MDMA infants did not perform as well as non-MDMA or lighter MDMA-exposed infants on the Alberta Infant Motor Scale tests, which measure gross motor maturation and milestone attainment from birth through independent walking, at a score of 35.1 compared with 45.9 and 65.7, respectively.

For example, MDMA-exposed infants were able to hold their heads unsupported at a later age than babies who were not exposed to the drug, explained co-investigator Derek Moore (University of East London, UK) in a press statement. They also showed delays in eye-hand coordination, turning from back to side, and being able to sit with support, he added, which could increase the potential for additional developmental delays later in life.

Another co-investigator, Andy Parrott (Swansea University, Wales, UK), said: "The psychomotor and related psychological problems identified in these 4-month-old babies are very worrying, but perhaps not particularly surprising.

"Ecstasy can deplete the level of serotonin, which is an important neurotransmitter for many brain functions, including gross motor control."

The researchers conclude: "Continued follow-up of the cohort to older ages is important for understanding whether these early motor differences persist or resolve."

By Piriya Mahendra

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