Opioid use during pregnancy alters the baby's brain

During pregnancy, everything taken in by the mother crosses the placenta. Opioid use during pregnancy is tied to changes in the baby’s brain, a new study found.

Opioid use alters the connectivity in the area in the brain responsible for emotions, according to a study to be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiologic Society of North America (RSNA). The team of researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine said that opioid use has devastating effects in vitro, including neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which is a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to opiate drugs inside the mother’s uterus.

NAS includes a variety of symptoms, including poor intrauterine growth, seizures, premature birth, and congenital disabilities. Now, the new study highlights the potential effects of opioid addiction in the mother during pregnancy on the baby’s brain development and behavior.

Babies with NAS require long hospital stays and in worse cases, treatment with opioids. Hence, shedding light on the effects of opioids on the fetal brain can help develop management strategies for NAS and in improving neurodevelopmental and behavioral outcomes in the children.

Image Credit: Kimberly Boyles
Image Credit: Kimberly Boyles

Studies on infant's brain

In the past, there were studies that tackled the opioid effect in utero on brain development. However, they focused on adult brains, which can’t specifically pinpoint opioid as the main culprit since social and environmental factors may have shaped the effects.
On the other hand, infant brains soon after birth can show the effects of the drug on its development. Also, the study can show the impact of opioid use on long-term outcomes in these affected children.

The team examined 16 infant brains, wherein half of the group were exposed to opioids during pregnancy, and the other half had no prior exposure to the drug. They used resting-state MRI to help measure the infants’ brain activities through detecting blood flow changes, including connections between neural regions.

They found that were marked changes in the way the amygdala connects among those who were exposed to opiates and those who were not. Though the finding is promising and can lead to better therapeutics and treatment strategies for NAS infants, the researchers said they still need to understand the implications of these brain changes.

The study is a breakthrough in how opioid affects not only the child’s health but also his or her behavior. Brain changes can appear in infants born to mothers addicted to opioids, and tracking these changes can help formulate new ways to help these kids live a normal life.

What is Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS)?

Neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) is the result of the sudden discontinuation of fetal exposure to substances that were used by the mother while she was pregnant. Hence, babies exposed to opioids, when they’re born and have no source of the substance, can develop withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal from these substances is becoming more common among newborns across the globe. Opioid use during pregnancy in people between 15 and 44 years old has increased over time. Between 2008 and 2012, about one in three women filled an opioid prescription every year. The number of women using opioid during pregnancy and had opioid use disorder at labor and delivery more than quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported

The withdrawal in newborns during the first 28 days of life is sometimes called neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). The symptoms often include trembling or tremors, sleep problems, hyperactive reflexes, irritability (high-pitched crying), seizures, poor sucking and feeding, increased sweating, vomiting, loose stools, and dehydration, and stuffy nose.

Journal reference:

Resting State Functional MRI Connectivity in Infants with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Rupa Radhakrishnan, MD, Nahla Elsaid, PhD ,Thomas A. Reher, MD, Andrew J. Saykin, Abbey C. Hines, PhD, Izlin Z. Lien, MD, Emily Scott, MD, Karmen Yoder, PhD, Yu-Chien Wu, MD,PhD, https://meeting.rsna.org/program/#

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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