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Prenatal cannabis exposure has unexpected effects on infant language

A recent study reveals unexpected effects of prenatal cannabis exposure on early language development in infants.

The researchers found that infants exposed to cannabis in the womb showed improved language development by their first birthday.

This discovery highlights an intriguing aspect of early childhood neurodevelopment, though experts caution against cannabis use during pregnancy due to known risks and unknown long-term effects.

Cannabis use among parents

Cannabis use during pregnancy has become a topic of concern as its prevalence rises. Common reasons for prenatal cannabis use include alleviating morning sickness, anxiety, and chronic pain.

Despite these potential benefits, medical experts strongly advise against cannabis use during pregnancy due to various health risks, such as low birth weight, premature birth, and developmental issues, including attention deficit/hyperactivity problems.

Awareness about these risks varies. Many users believe cannabis is a natural remedy and safer than pharmaceuticals, leading to its continued use.

Public health campaigns aim to increase awareness about the dangers of prenatal cannabis use to infants, but misinformation and varying state laws complicate these efforts.

Medical professionals continue to stress the importance of avoiding cannabis during pregnancy to ensure the health and safety of the developing fetus.

Prenatal cannabis and infant development

A research team from the Avera Research Institute in South Dakota aimed to understand the impact of prenatal cannabis exposure on infants. They recruited 207 pregnant individuals and their 12-month-old infants from The Safe Passage Study, a large prospective study conducted from 2007 to 2015.

“With cannabis legalization on a steady rise, the prevalence of prenatal cannabis use has increased drastically. The incidence of use by pregnant individuals has increased from 3.4 percent in 2002 to 7 percent in 2017 with a large spike coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic to 25 percent,” noted the researchers.

Using the Mullen Scale of Early Learning, which assesses cognitive development in children, the experts evaluated the infants’ gross motor skills, fine motor skills, expressive language, receptive language, and visual reception. Higher scores on this scale indicate more comprehensive development.

Prenatal cannabis exposure data were collected through self-reporting, with participants categorized based on early (first trimester) or late (second or third trimester) exposure, and compared with unexposed participants.

Language gains in cannabis-exposed infants

Surprisingly, infants exposed to cannabis later in pregnancy scored higher in both expressive and receptive language areas compared to those who were not exposed.

Infants exposed early in pregnancy exhibited better gross motor skills, though there were no differences in fine motor skills and visual reception.

“Preclinical studies have shown abnormal brain connectivity in offspring exposed to cannabis affecting emotional regulation, hyperactivity, and language development. Results from this study link [prenatal cannabis exposure] to altered early language development within the first year of life,” the authors noted.

“Exposed infants demonstrated increased expressive and receptive language scores at 12 months of age, which can translate to better performance in school. However, further research is needed to determine the implications of these results later in childhood.”

Limitations and risks

Despite these surprising findings, the study has limitations. The data on cannabis use were self-reported, lacking details on frequency, mode, and quantity of use. Additionally, the study did not account for potential postnatal cannabis exposure.

Compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) can cross the placenta and impact fetal brain development. Medical organizations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommend avoiding cannabis during pregnancy based on a broad review of available evidence on infant health.

Given these concerns, pregnant women should avoid cannabis to protect their child’s overall health and development. The potential benefits observed in one aspect of development do not outweigh the known and unknown risks associated with prenatal cannabis exposure.

Additional risks to infants

Studies have also linked prenatal cannabis exposure to developmental issues, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities. THC can impair fetal brain development, potentially causing long-term cognitive and behavioral problems.

Additionally, infants exposed to cannabis in the womb may face increased risks of respiratory problems and weakened immune systems. Experts stress that the potential harms outweigh any perceived benefits, urging pregnant women to avoid cannabis to protect their infants’ health and development.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Pediatrics.


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