Does Cannabis Use During Pregnancy Harm your Baby?
Another week, another cannabis study blown out of proportion by the media. “How pot harms your baby’s brain: Smoking cannabis in pregnancy ‘impairs memory, decision-making and personality,’” say the Daily Mail. “Mothers Beware!” yell the Economic Times. But what’s the truth here? To find that out, it helps, as always, to read the actual study yourself.
The basis for these latest scare stories comes from The Netherlands, where scientists led by Dr Hanan El Marroun from Erasmus University Medical Centre have conducted research (published last year, but only just picked up by the press) into the effects of cannabis and tobacco use during pregnancy on child brain development.
The scientists “matched 96 children prenatally exposed to tobacco only (without cannabis) with 113 unexposed control subjects on the basis of age and gender and subsequently selected 54 children exposed to prenatal cannabis (mostly combined with tobacco exposure).” The children were chosen from a previous cohort study – dubbed the ‘Generation R Study’ – in which 9778 mothers with a delivery date from April 2002 until January 2006 were enrolled, and the progress and health of their children monitored from before they were born. The Generation R Study itself is still ongoing.
The purpose of this new study was to look at some of the subjects of Generation R to see what effect, if any, cannabis use by their mothers has had on their brain development. As was rightly reported by most media outlets, it was discovered that cannabis use seemed to correlate with a thickening of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with complex cognition, decision-making, and working memory.
As the scientists themselves admitted, though, they had a hard job finding infants who had been exposed to cannabis only – without tobacco – hence the decision to also include a control group of those exposed only to tobacco to give them some idea of the differences between the two. What they found was that whilst cannabis seemed to thicken the prefrontal cortex, tobacco alone appeared to make it thinner. So at first glance it would appear that the headlines are indeed correct.
However, it is not that simple. The study did not find that cannabis exposure had any effect on the total brain volume, grey matter volume, or white matter volume, something which was observed in children exposed only to tobacco. And whilst the scientists made every effort to factor in things such as prenatal alcohol exposure, as well as the subject’s backgrounds and ethnicities, there is as yet – since the subjects are still children – no data on exactly if or how the thickening of their prefrontal cortex has affected their lives. This would of course be near impossible to prove at any rate, given the myriad array of factors at play during childhood and adult life which all have a role in determining where an individual ends up.
That’s not to say that this isn’t something which should be looked into more thoroughly, of course, but as Dr Marroun pointed out, “We have to be careful interpreting the results of the current study.” This statement echoes the final line of the study itself, which states that “More research is needed to explore the causal nature of this association.”
It’s clear then that as usual, the findings of this study have been somewhat overstated by the more hysterical sections of the press. Whilst the smoking of tobacco and cannabis should probably be avoided during pregnancy, there’s no need yet to presume that your child is going to be somehow brain damaged if you happen to be a cannabis user. There’s certainly no basis for using this study, which found potentially more significant changes to the brain caused by tobacco, a legal drug, than by cannabis, as a stick to bash legalisation with. The argument simply doesn’t hold up.
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