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Behavior Problems Linked to Nicotine Exposure During Pregnancy


Women who are pregnant or contemplating pregnancy should avoid exposure to nicotine, warns a new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Behavior problems such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could affect children born to mothers who light up during pregnancy.

Nicotine during pregnancy is never good for children

The evidence against smoking and exposure to nicotine during pregnancy is ever growing. Marjorie Greenfield, MD, notes that complications such as miscarriage, premature birth, low birth weight, placental abruption, and premature rupture of the membranes are all more common among women who are heavy smokers during pregnancy.

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Even among light smokers, nicotine causes spasms of the arteries that supply blood to the placenta. This reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients the fetus receives, which can result in underweight infants. Research shows that even secondhand smoke has an impact on the fetus, and that the risk of sudden infant death is greater than among nonsmokers.

In new study from UAB, which was presented at Neuroscience 2010 in San Diego, the researchers used a mouse model to determine the impact of exposure to nicotine during pregnancy. They found that such exposure caused a decline in the number of adult stem cells and a change in synaptic plasticity in the hippocampus in the brain (the area most involved with learning and memory) of offspring.

According to Robin Lester, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Neurobiology and the main investigator, “failure to correctly incorporate newborn cells into the circuitry of the hippocampus--and the resulting disruption of neural pathways essential to learning—could account for some of the behavioral problems observed in the lives of children of mothers who smoke during pregnancy,” such as ADHD, learning difficulties, and cognitive deficits.

Results of the UAB study are important because they suggest that the impact of nicotine on newborns is “more dramatic” and “may indicate increased risk and/or susceptibility for damage to the learning processes during pregnancy,” notes Shay Hyman, a doctoral student in Lester’s laboratory. Thus women have yet another reason to avoid exposure to nicotine during pregnancy: the potential for behavior problems in their children.