MONDAY, March 19, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- Children exposed to methamphetamine while in the womb face a higher risk of developing behavior problems, a new study suggests.
These problems can include depression, anxiousness and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the researchers report.
"This is the only study on methamphetamine that looked at children at birth and followed them into childhood," said study author Linda LaGasse, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Brown University School of Medicine.
Mothers' prenatal use of methamphetamine, "over and above other bad things that cause trouble with children, has an effect on behavior," LaGasse said.
The stimulant drug is thought to be even more potent than cocaine because it lasts longer in the body, she explained. "Methamphetamine goes right into the placenta and affects the brain," she said.
The report appears online March 19 and in the April issue of Pediatrics.
Dr. James C. Garbutt, professor and medical director of the Alcohol & Substance Abuse Program at the University of North Carolina, said that "these data suggest that exposure to methamphetamine in utero might lead to behavioral problems in children, and this is something that needs to be noted and considered for future research."
This information is another reason for women, and men, to avoid methamphetamine, or, if addicted, to become sober, Garbutt said.
"Of course there are many other reasons not to use methamphetamine including its serious consequences for physical and mental health and its overall destructive power for individuals and their families," he added.
LaGasse's team tested 166 children of mothers who used methamphetamine during pregnancy, comparing them to 164 similar children who had not been exposed to the drug.
To determine that results were truly related to methamphetamine use and not other factors, the researchers took into account tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use among both groups of mothers.
Researchers also looked at the extent of their mother's methamphetamine use, age and other environmental risk factors.
Children's caregivers filled out a checklist that researchers used to assess behavior when they were 3, and again at age 5.
At both assessments, "methamphetamine-exposed children were more emotionally reactive, that is nervous and disturbed by change, as well as anxious and depressed," LaGasse said.
By age 5, these children also showed signs of ADHD and other acting-out behaviors.
Moreover, children whose mothers were heavy methamphetamine users had both types of problems at both evaluations.
Dr. Bruce Goldman, director of substance abuse services at Zucker Hillside Hospital, part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Glen Oaks, N.Y., commented on the study.
"The finding is not overly surprising," he said. "It's only commonsensical that with women who are using methamphetamine through pregnancy that there would be some long-term impact on their babies."
That's true with other drugs, he said.
"We need to reach out to women of childbearing age and help educate them about the long-term consequences of the continued use of methamphetamine during pregnancy," Goldman said.
Children of drug abusers have a high lifetime risk of becoming substance abusers themselves -- as much as four times higher, he added.
"The earlier intervention can start with these children, the better chance of preventing these long-term consequences," Goldman said.
Study author LaGasse agreed.
"You have children who are already vulnerable coming into a household that may also be vulnerable and you see [that] by age 3, behavior is getting off normal," LaGasse said.
"These behaviors are worthy of addressing, especially in high-risk families," she said. "If nothing is done, these are some of the kids who end up taking drugs as adolescents and having other problems. Parents and teachers need to pay attention to these kids."
Nemours Foundation has more about children's behavior problems.