The Center on Substance Abuse and Mental Illness (S.A.M.I.)
Prenatal Cocaine Exposure
What are the effects of cocaine exposure on infants and young adults? Sonia Minnes, PhD, is an assistant professor of social work at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School and is principal investigator of a longitudinal study of children who were exposed to cocaine and other drugs prenatally. The study began in 1994 and has been funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in several phases. The study has followed almost 400 children and their parents (or primary caregivers) since birth. It boasts a retention rate of over 90 percent.
The project is now in its fourth phase and is currently supported by a $4.9 million NIDA grant. This phase of the study is titled “The Effects of Prenatal Cocaine Exposure in Adolescence” and is taking place in Cleveland for five years. There are 382 adolescents and their primary caregivers (e.g., parents, grandparents, foster parents) in the current study. Most are African-American and live in lowincome urban neighborhoods. There are two comparison groups: 194 cocaine-exposed adolescents and their primary caregivers; and 188 non-cocaine exposed adolescents and their primary caregivers (control group).
Minnes explains that analyses of data from earlier phases of her research have found that cocaine exposure has negatively affected brain development and related cognitive development of infants and children. So in this phase of the study, researchers are examining if prenatal cocaine exposure continues to interfere with development during adolescence, particularly in four areas: executive function of the brain (e.g., attention, motivation, self-regulation, organizing, planning); cognitive function (e.g., language, non-verbal problem solving); risk-taking behavior; and mental health (e.g., problems with attention and delinquency). The researchers are also exploring if cocaine exposure may increase these risk-taking behaviors:
- Use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs
- Risky sexual activity
- Delinquent and violent behaviors
Minnes and her team are currently analyzing data they collected from 15-year old subjects. Preliminary results suggest that adolescents exposed prenatally to cocaine are twice as likely to use an addictive substance at this age.
Also, heavy exposure to cocaine prenatally appears to predict use of any addictive substance (e.g., alcohol, marijuana). In addition, prenatally-exposed females tend to exhibit more delinquent behavior than those females not exposed prenatally. Examples include stealing, fighting, disobedience, lying, cheating, and destructive behavior, among others. These results were recently published in Neurotoxicilogy and Teratology.
This past year, Minnes and researchers from the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve received an alliance grant from the university. The grant will support crossdisciplinary initiatives for existing and proposed research to enhance understanding of the impact of addiction on the course of infectious disease.
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