WEDNESDAY, March 17, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- Children whose mothers use methamphetamine during pregnancy may suffer more severe brain damage than children exposed to alcohol in the womb, a new study suggests.
"We know that alcohol exposure is toxic to the developing fetus and can result in lifelong brain, cognitive and behavioral problems," research team leader Elizabeth Sowell, from the University of California, Los Angeles, said in a news release. "In this study, we show that the effects of prenatal meth exposure, or the combination of meth and alcohol exposure, may actually be worse. Our findings stress the importance of drug abuse treatment for pregnant women."
Sowell and her colleagues compared brain scans of 21 children with prenatal meth and alcohol exposure, 13 children with heavy prenatal alcohol exposure only, and 27 children who had no prenatal exposure to meth or alcohol.
The researchers found that a structure called the caudate nucleus -- which plays an important role in learning and memory, motor control and motivation -- was one of the brain regions that was even smaller in meth-exposed children than in alcohol-exposed children, who have a smaller-than-normal caudate nucleus.
Meth-exposed children also had some larger-than-normal brain regions, including the cingulate cortex, which plays a role in control and conflict resolution.
Being able to identify which brain structures are affected in meth-exposed children may help predict the specific types of learning and behavioral problems that will afflict these children, said Sowell and colleagues.
The study appears in the March 17 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience.
The March of Dimes has more about illicit drug use during pregnancy.