Children born to expectant mothers who used marijuana during pregnancy are at a higher risk of developing mental disorders. The results were discovered in a recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry which analysed around 11,489 children for research purposes. The spectrum of disorders included a number of problems like autism, psychotic-like behaviors, and ADHD among many others.
The children were part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study which is considered as the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States.
Findings of the study
Out of the 11,489 children who were studied, almost 655 were exposed to marijuana during their gestational period. The negative effects were magnified in women who continued using marijuana through out their pregnancy and also while breastfeeding their infants. “Use of cannabis despite knowledge of pregnancy might represent a preexisting and more severe form of cannabis use,” the authors wrote.
Marijuana usage and Mental Disorders
The increased decriminalization and evolving legal acceptance of marijuana is leading to an escalation in its usage rates.
Compounds in marijuana bind to cannabinoid receptors in the brain and induce side-effects like intoxication, euphoria and cognitive delays. This is the main reason for its classification as a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level in the United States. For states where it is considered legal, the medicinal benefits attached to some of its non-psychoactive compounds are valued above the side-effects.
In general, the risks of addiction and other associated side-effects increase with the concentration of THC (psychoactive compound). The negative consequences can be more detrimental if the exposure happens at an earlier developmental age. This is why the incidence of marijuana use and mental disorders is higher for children who get exposed to it in the womb.
According to a research published by U.S Surgeon General Jerome Adams, the concentration of compounds in marijuana have changed overtime. The marijuana available today is much more stronger and THC concentrated as compared to what it was earlier. THC concentration in marijuana crops has increased by three-folds between 1995 and 2014.
In addition, according to his research, marijuana products sold in legal dispensaries may contain THC concentrations ranging between 17.7% to 23.2%. This is separate from the other class of concentrated products that are exclusively designed for recreational use. These products tend to contain between 23.7% to 75.9% concentration levels of THC in them.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse has reported that the usage rates of marijuana had more than doubled between 2002 and 2017 among pregnant women. Most of this use was recreational rather than medicinal in nature. Surprisingly, there are mothers who used marijuana because they considered it safer as compared to prescription medications.
Side-effects of marijuana on fetal development
THC affects the fetal brain via the mother’s bloodstream. It disrupts the mother’s endocannabinoid system, affecting fetal brain development. Outcomes of this early exposure to dangerous levels of THC and leads to anxiety, agitation and psychosis in children.
Some newborns exposed to marijuana have also reportedly experienced withdrawal symptoms including tremors, crying and sleep deprivation. Furthermore, some of the risks during gestation include lower birth weight, preterm labor and increased risk of miscarriages.
In addition to this, studies conducted by Duke University Medical Center have shown a clear link between autism and marijuana. It was a first study to highlight the changes in sperm genes that occur with a man’s cannabis intake. These changes in the sperm of marijuana users have been found to trigger autism in their offspring.
Effect of marijuana exposure later in life of children
According to Dr. Compton there is enough retrospective data to show an association between marijuana usage and the onset of psychotic symptoms. “Adolescent/premorbid marijuana use is not only a risk factor for the later development of primary psychotic disorders (which has been shown in prior studies), but is also a risk factor for an earlier onset of those disorders.”
Can the damage be controlled?
Camille Hoffman, MD, MSCS, is an associate professor of maternal- fetal medicine in University of Colorado School of Medicine. He has conducted a detailed study on the negative effects of marijuana on fetal development. His studies have found that maternal marijuana use begins to negatively impact the fetal brain at an earlier stage in pregnancy. However, some dietary measures can help to curtail these damages. “We also found that eating choline-rich foods or taking choline as a supplement may protect the child from potential harm.”