Prenatal Cocaine Exposure Affects Attention In Early School Years

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Adding to the evidence that maternal drug use can have lasting effects, young schoolchildren of cocaine-using moms scored more poorly on attention tests.

Researchers looked at test scores of 415 African-American children who took tests at age 5 or 7 (now 14 to 16 years old). The mothers of 219 of the children had taken cocaine while pregnant, and the mothers of the other 196 had not. All of the mothers were poor and living in the Miami inner city.

Children born to cocaine-addicted moms showed signs of having more trouble paying attention than the other kids. They were more likely to make errors of omission and had slower reaction times on tasks.

"This study provides further evidence of a subtle but consistent effect on attention through early school-aged years," said lead author Veronica Accornero, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami.

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However, the effects are minor, and one pediatric specialist suggested they pale next to the problems caused when mothers use alcohol and tobacco. In general, children born to cocaine-using mothers "are doing much better than anyone predicted, especially considering their background," said Tamara Warner, research assistant professor at the University of Florida who is familiar with the study findings.

The study appears in the June issue of the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

During and after the crack epidemic of the 1980s, so-called "crack babies" were the subject of media coverage and concern about their futures. Researchers found, however, that the effects in general "appear to be more subtle and specific than initially believed," Accornero said.

She said the children do not appear to have a hard time with "intellectual functioning," although they might have difficulties with language, attention and behavior.

The future effects on these children is unclear. "Certainly, attention and the ability to maintain attention is an important skill that supports the development of other skills like language and behavior," Accornero said. "It's possible that because of subtle deficits we may see an effect on academic performance. We just don't know yet."

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