New Scan Spots Drugs' Effects on Fetus

Combination of MRI and PET should also aid research

FRIDAY, Feb. 4, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Scientists say they've developed a sophisticated, non-invasive new imaging tool to determine the effects of prenatal drug exposure on a fetus.

Researchers at the U.S. Brookhaven National Laboratory, in Upton, N.Y., combined two hi-tech scans -- magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) -- to track the intake and distribution of trace amounts of cocaine in pregnant monkeys. This combination of images enabled them to pinpoint major differences in where and how fast cocaine accumulated in the organs of both mothers and fetuses.

The findings appear in the February issue of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

"Understanding how drugs are transferred between a mother and her fetus during pregnancy may help us unravel the mechanisms of the drug's damaging effects on unborn children," study lead author Helene Benveniste, chair of Brookhaven's medical department, said in a prepared statement.

"While studies that follow human drug abusers and their children over decades provide valuable information, animal studies can more quickly provide clues to the underlying mechanisms of damage and suggest ways to test new treatment or prevention strategies," Benveniste explained.

This combination of imaging technology may also prove useful in assessing the effects of pain drugs given to mothers following surgery on their fetuses in utero.

"Following such surgeries, which are becoming more common to correct congenital malformations, the mother is treated with narcotics for pain -- and anesthesiologists are relying on the mother transferring the pain medication to the fetus via the placenta. But we actually do not know if what we give is sufficient to 'satisfy' the pain level of the fetus," Benveniste said.

More information

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has information on illegal drug use during pregnancy.

SOURCE: Brookhaven National Laboratory, news release, Feb. 4, 2005
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