Cocaine use while pregnant may cause ADHD

ITHACA, N.Y. -- A connection between cocaine use during pregnancy and attention dysfunction in children is suggested in a study by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Kentucky.

The study finds that rat fetuses exposed to cocaine levels comparable to daily recreational use in humans show lasting dysfunction specifically in the area of attention. Researcher Barbara J. Strupp, associate professor of psychology and of nutritional sciences at Cornell, says the findings can be applied to humans.

"Although prenatal cocaine exposure does not seem to affect most areas of cognitive function, the deficits in attention are consistent and lasting -- seen in adult animals long past the period of exposure. In humans, this type of dysfunction could significantly impact the lives of affected children, as seen in cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)," says Strupp, co-author of a study on prenatal cocaine exposure to be published in Behavioral Neuroscience in August.

"There appear to be some differences between the cognitive profile seen in these cocaine-exposed animals compared to that of ADHD, but in both cases, attentional dysfunction is prominent while many other cognitive processes are unaffected," she says. "However, perhaps it should be noted that even though the effects of prenatal cocaine exposure are likely to be significant, they do not support the devastation implied by media reports of the early 1990s.

"Researchers have become increasingly concerned about the effects of cocaine use during pregnancy because of the growing incidence of cocaine-exposed babies. This increased incidence is due to the advent of crack cocaine, a cheaper form of cocaine that is being used increasingly by poor and young pregnant women," says Strupp.

A National Institute of Drug Abuse survey published in 1996 estimated that 1.1 percent of pregnant women in the United States -- 45,100 women -- smoke crack cocaine each year.

Contact: Susan S. Lang
Cornell University News Service

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