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Cannabis During Pregnancy Impairs Baby's Brain Development

By Phungushead, Feb 1, 2014 | | |
  1. Phungushead
    A new study sheds light on how THC causes damage to cells in the growing brain.

    Although it doesn’t compare to fetal alcohol syndrome, cannabis exposure in the womb can cause any number of problems.

    Children whose mothers use marijuana during pregnancy have a higher risk of stunted growth and of developing ADHD, anxiety, and depression later in life.

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than 10 percent of unborn children in the U.S. and Europe have been exposed to cannabis.

    Cannabis is one of the oldest domestic crops known to man, having co-evolved with humans for millennia, and it’s probable that many ancient cultures used the drug. However, modern breeding and cultivation techniques have dramatically boosted the plant’s levels of the psychoactive chemical Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC crosses the placenta very easily, so when a pregnant mother uses the drug, so does her child.

    The effects that THC can have on a developing fetus are highlighted in a research study published yesterday in The EMBO Journal. The study was conducted by a team from Sweden, Austria, Germany, Finland, the UK, and the U.S., and led by Professor Tibor Harkany at the Karolinka Institutet (KI) in Sweden.

    The Devil Is in the Details

    Growing a baby from a single cell is an astonishingly complex task. As the fetal brain develops, each cell must grow, migrate to the correct place, form into the correct shape, and successfully make as many as 10,000 connections with other cells. To reach other cells, each nerve cell grows a long, thin stalk called an axon, the end of which fans out to form many links.

    This process requires a carefully-timed, intricate cascade of chemical signals. And it turns out that endocannabinoid, a signaling chemical in the body that THC mimics, is one of these. When THC enters the body, it interferes with endocannabinoid’s actions, competing with it for binding sites on target cells and generally getting its way.

    To test THC’s effects on the developing brain, Harkany started by exposing pregnant mice to low doses of THC and then examining the brains of their pups.

    “The way axons form, bundle, and grow towards their target is impaired,” he told Healthline. Taking a closer look, he found that the number of binding sites for endocannabinoid had increased, and that axons were more likely to clump together. “The growth cones—the motile end tips that guide directional growth—look...different,” Harkany said.

    Mice aren’t a perfect model for humans, and we still don't know how different their endocannabinoid system is from that of humans. To confirm his findings, Harkany would have to look at people.

    Harkany gathered human fetuses that had been donated to science and tested them to see if they had been exposed to THC. The THC-exposed fetuses had lower body weights and smaller foot length. When he looked inside their brains, he found reduced levels of stathmin-2, a protein involved in learning and memory formation.

    Cannabis 'Should Be Avoided' During Pregnancy

    Although the brain differences caused by THC exposure are fairly subtle, Harkany warns that their minds' inherent instability is what leaves children at greater risk for developing certain psychiatric conditions later in life.

    “Abnormal [axon] organization, even if remaining latent for long periods, might be prone to ‘circuit failure’ if provoked,” he explained. “A ‘double hit’ scenario of failure, when a network advances into a runaway cascade upon a secondary insult, therefore might account for the increased incidence of schizophrenia, depression, and addiction in offspring prenatally exposed to cannabis.”

    The take-home message, Harkany feels, is clear. “Cannabis should be avoided during pregnancy. And, if there is a medical indication for the mother then careful cost/benefit analysis should be conducted by medical professionals," he said. "I appreciate the use of medical cannabis, but it should certainly be analyzed whether maternal benefits outweigh potential risk for the baby.”

    January 28, 2014

    Rachel Barclay


  1. AKA_freckles
    How much THC were they giving these mice? I can't seem to find that in this article.

    I have personally birthed and watched my friends birth babies for the last 15 years or so, and I have a hard time believing a moderate amount of weed is harmful. I never smoked while preggo, I am way too neurotic for that. My friends have though, many of them, and I know their kids as they've grown up. They have all been beautiful, bright kids.

    Also, 'Fetal alcohol syndrome' should not be used comparatively, even lightly. That is just wrong. FAS is very real. This is a theory at this point. That's just sensationalism.

    Our bodies and placentas do an amazing job of filtering out bad substances, not all, but most.

    I think the key here is moderation. A little organic bud is probably not going to hurt anything. Especially when it can help solve problems like morning sickness, which can be truly dangerous when it is severe.

    Heavy, chronic smoking is a different beast, however. I can't really get behind that.
  2. bluenarrative
    I read through the study and I saw no mention of how much THC was given to the mice. This is a ridiculous omission in a supposedly "scientific" study. The paper is not worth the paper it is printed on! Fetal alcohol syndrome is a well documented phenomenon. I can't find one other study on Medline or Pubmed that correlates any of this stuff. It reads to me like pseudo-scientific claptrap. There is some.stuff in here about neurological development that correlates to what I know, but this looks like window-dressing designed to give a thin veneer to an otherwise absurd paper. I can't find anything about the Karolinka Institute, nor can I find anything about the paper's "coauthors" which makes me deeply suspect that they are either mere students or non-existent.The principal author has no profile in the English-speaking world, though there seems to be some stuff written about him in Swedish. Who is this guy???
  3. detoxin momma
    I am someone who smoked weed while pregnant.I'm not proud of it,but I did.I was completely honest with my doctor about it to.
    I,d say I smoked about a joints worth a day threw a one hitter.
    My doctor didn't tell me to stop either,in fact quite the opposite.he said bein that I was a long time,Dependant user it might actually have adverse effects on the fetus as I was so used to it.
    Anyways,both pregnancies were full term,completely,normal,and healthy birth weights to,one 7lbs exactly,and the other 8 lbs3oz...
    My kids are now 10&8yrs old.both are top of their class and have no other personality issues of any kind.
    As humans we psychoanalyze everything.we can pick and dig threw every aspect of our existence looking for patterns andif we look hard enough we'll find one.....its weed,a plant for cryin out loud,not some junk cooked up by someone using god knows what.....just my experience with that,which I'm sure will be psychoanalyzed to lol
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