Prenatal Exposure to Methamphetamine Worse than Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

A new study on the effects of methamphetamine on unborn babies conducted at the University of California Los Angeles has found that the drug is even more damaging to a fetus than Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.

Structural magnetic resonance imaging (SMRI) allowed Professor Elizabeth Sowell and her colleagues to see brain abnormalities caused by the drug abuse.

“It shows for the first time that individuals whose mothers abused methamphetamine during pregnancy, with or without alcohol abuse, had structural abnormalities in the brain that were more severe than those seen in children whose mothers abused alcohol alone,” said Sowell.

The research findings have resonance for South Africa’sWestern Cape, where the scourge of methamphetamine (called “tik”) abuse has devastated communities, and where a 2006 study found that 10 percent of pregnant mothers used methamphetamine.

The Cape Town study, conducted by the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Research Unit of the South African Medical Research Council, looked at 100 pregnant women attending antenatal clinics in the Tygerberg area. Ten of them admitted to using methamphetamine while pregnant.

A larger follow-up study has since been conducted, involving 300 participants. The results are due to be made public in May this year, said principal investigator Dr. Bavi Vythilingum from the University of Cape Town’s psychiatry department.

A number of educators working at schools in the Cape flats, where use of the drug spread like wildfire over the past decade, also say they’ve noted an increase in the number of children with learning and behavioral problems.

Kewtown Primary School principal Cecil Balie said “a minority group” of grade three and four children displayed behavioral and learning problems due to exposure to drug or alcohol abuse during their formative years.

Balie said as learners got older their problems become more prevalent, occasionally resulting in them having to be expelled for violent behavior.

This tied in with results from the UCLA study, which noted exposure to methamphetamine in utero reduced the size of the region of the brain essential for learning and memory, motor control, and punishment and reward functions.

Children exposed to methamphetamine in the womb also presented abnormal volume increase in the brain region associated with control and conflict resolution, the study said.

“These drugs are likely altering the trajectory of development, and clearly not in a good way as there are enormous developmental changes that take place during adolescence,” noted the UCLA researchers.

Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre clinical psychologist Cathy Karassellos said workers at the coal face of substance abuse suspected there would be a generation of learners who would experience developmental problems.

Karassellos said although the effects of maternal methamphetamine use on babies required “extensive research and follow ups,” toddlers were usually “difficult and hyperactive.”

She said even if a child’s mother did not use methamphetamine during pregnancy, if drugs were used in the home, the domestic scenario contributed to neglect of the child.
South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency social worker Nicolette Kwalie said most of her clients’ children struggled at school due to their exposure to drugs.

Kwalie said many of them were failing or had problems such as bed wetting and stomach cramps due to anxiety. Violent behaviorr among children exposed to drugs such as methamphetamine was also common as they imitated what they saw in the home.

The UCLA study focused on 61 children, of whom 21 had prenatal exposure to both methamphetamine and alcohol, 13 to heavy alcohol abuse, and 27 unexposed to either.