Neurobiological consequences of maternal cannabis on human fetal development and its neuropsychiatric outcome

Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2009 Oct;259(7):395-412. doi: 10.1007/s00406-009-0027-z. Epub 2009 Jul 2.


Despite the high prevalence of marijuana use among pregnant women and adolescents, the impact of cannabis on the developing brain is still not well understood. However, growing evidence supports that the endocannabinoid system plays a major role in CNS patterning in structures relevant for mood, cognition, and reward, such as the mesocorticolimbic system. It is thus clear that exposure to cannabis during early ontogeny is not benign and potential compensatory mechanisms that might be expected to occur during neurodevelopment appear insufficient to eliminate vulnerability to neuropsychiatric disorders in certain individuals. Both human longitudinal cohort studies and animal models strongly emphasize the long-term influence of prenatal cannabinoid exposure on behavior and mental health. This review provides an overview of the endocannabinoid system and examines the neurobiological consequences of cannabis exposure in pregnancy and early life by addressing its impact on the development of neurotransmitters systems relevant to neuropsychiatric disorders and its association with these disorders later in life. It posits that studying in utero cannabis exposure in association with genetic mutations of neural systems that have strong relationships to endocannabinoid function, such as the dopamine, opioid, glutamate, and GABA, might help to identify individuals at risk. Such data could add to existing knowledge to guide public health platform in regard to the use of cannabis and its derivatives during pregnancy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior / drug effects
  • Brain* / embryology
  • Brain* / metabolism
  • Brain* / physiopathology
  • Cannabinoids / toxicity
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / drug effects*
  • Fetus / physiopathology
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / drug effects
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental / physiology
  • Humans
  • Marijuana Smoking / adverse effects*
  • Neurobiology / methods
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / epidemiology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / physiopathology


  • Cannabinoids
  • Neurotransmitter Agents