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Cocaine Use During Pregnancy Affects Neurocognitive Development in Children

A study by researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) found that “heavier intrauterine cocaine exposure (IUCE) is associated with mild compromise on selective areas of neurocognitive development during middle childhood.” The findings of the said research were published in this month’s edition of Neurotoxicology and Teratology and is supported by the National Institutes of Health – National Center for Research Resources and the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

The study looked into whether it is the interaction between IUCE and certain contextual variables or the level of IUCE itself is linked to the executive functioning during middle childhood. The researchers conducted two neurophsychological assessments: the Stroop Color-Word test and the rey Osterrieth Organizational score. The first one measures control of verbal inhibition while the latter evaluates cognitive skills such as organization, planning and perception.

The assessments were conducted on 143 children, aged nine to eleven years old with varying levels of prenatal cocaine exposure. The subjects were classified under three categories: the heavier IUCE through biological assay or maternal reports, lighter IUCE and unexposed. The study found that IUCE level does not significantly affect the scores of the children who took the exam. This was after contextual variable s such as prenatal exposure to other substances was controlled. But children who were heavily exposed to cocaine had lower Stroop scores than those who were lightly exposed and those who were not exposed to cocaine at all.

“These research findings were present even in the absence of major cognitive differences in the same cohort as previously measured by standardized instruments in late infancy and early childhood,” says Ruth Rose-Jacobs, Sc.D., the study’s lead author and assistant professor and research scientist from the BUSM. “The emergence of these subtle IUCE effects suggests the possibility of neurognitive ‘sleeper effects’ of IUCE, which may become more apparent with the greater functional and cognitive demands of late middle childhood and preadolescence.”

The researchers also suggest that longitudinal assessment should be conducted to help clarify whether the group differences between those who were lightly exposed and the ones who were heavily exposed are largely due to delay in development, immaturity or because of persistent deficits.

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