Neuroimaging of children following prenatal drug exposure

Semin Cell Dev Biol. 2009 Jun;20(4):441-54. doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2009.03.001. Epub 2009 Mar 13.


Recent advances in MR-based brain imaging methods have provided unprecedented capabilities to visualize the brain. Application of these methods has allowed identification of brain structures and patterns of functional activation altered in offspring of mothers who used licit (e.g., alcohol and tobacco) and illicit (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana) drugs during pregnancy. Here we review that literature, which though somewhat limited by the complexities of separating the specific effects of each drug from other confounding variables, points to sets of interconnected brain structures as being altered following prenatal exposure to drugs of abuse. In particular, dopamine-rich cortical (e.g., frontal cortex) and subcortical (e.g., basal ganglia) fetal brain structures show evidence of vulnerability to intrauterine drug exposure suggesting that during brain development drugs of abuse share a specific profile of developmental neurotoxicity. Such brain malformations may shed light on mechanisms underlying prenatal drug-induced brain injury, may serve as bio-markers of significant intrauterine drug exposure, and may additionally be predictors of subsequent neuro-developmental compromise. Wider clinical use of these research-based non-invasive methods will allow for improved diagnosis and allocation of therapeutic resources for affected infants, children, and young adults.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Child
  • Developmental Disabilities / chemically induced
  • Developmental Disabilities / diagnosis
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Maternal-Fetal Exchange*
  • Pregnancy
  • Substance-Related Disorders*