The long-term effects of prenatal nicotine exposure on neurologic development

J Midwifery Womens Health. Mar-Apr 2010;55(2):143-52. doi: 10.1016/j.jmwh.2009.05.006.


A large body of documented evidence has found that smoking during pregnancy is harmful to both the mother and the fetus. Prenatal exposure to nicotine in various forms alters neurologic development in experimental animals and may increase the risk for neurologic conditions in humans. There is a positive association between maternal smoking and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); however, the connection between nicotine addiction, depression, attention disorders, and learning and behavior problems in humans is not straightforward. Nicotine's action on the production and function of neurotransmitters makes it a prime suspect in the pathology of these diseases. Nicotine accentuates neurotransmitter function in adults but desensitizes these functions in prenatally exposed infants and children. This desensitization causes an abnormal response throughout the lifespan. Furthermore, nicotine use by adolescents and adults can alleviate some of the symptoms caused by these neurotransmitter problems while they increase the risk for nicotine addiction. Although nicotine replacement drugs are used by pregnant women, there is no clear indication that they improve outcomes during pregnancy, and they may add to the damage that occurs to the developing neurologic system in the fetus. Understanding the effects of nicotine exposure is important in providing safe care for pregnant women, children, and families and for developing appropriate smoking cessation programs during pregnancy.

MeSH terms

  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / chemically induced
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / etiology*
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Child
  • Child Behavior
  • Female
  • Fetal Development / drug effects
  • Fetal Development / physiology
  • Ganglionic Stimulants / administration & dosage
  • Ganglionic Stimulants / adverse effects*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Nervous System / drug effects
  • Nervous System / growth & development
  • Nervous System Physiological Phenomena
  • Nicotine / administration & dosage
  • Nicotine / adverse effects*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Smoking Cessation
  • Sudden Infant Death / etiology*
  • Time Factors


  • Ganglionic Stimulants
  • Nicotine