Rationale: Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among pregnant women. Since the endocannabinoid system plays a crucial role in brain development, maternal exposure to cannabis derivatives might result in long-lasting neurobehavioral abnormalities in the exposed offspring. It is difficult to detect these effects, and their underlying neurobiological mechanisms, in clinical cohorts, because of their intrinsic methodological and interpretative issues.
Objectives: The present paper reviews relevant rodent studies examining the long-term behavioral consequences of exposure to cannabinoid compounds during pregnancy and/or lactation.
Results: Maternal exposure to even low doses of cannabinoid compounds results in atypical locomotor activity, cognitive impairments, altered emotional behavior, and enhanced sensitivity to drugs of abuse in the adult rodent offspring. Some of the observed behavioral abnormalities might be related to alterations in stress hormone levels induced by maternal cannabis exposure.
Conclusions: There is increasing evidence from animal studies showing that cannabinoid drugs are neuroteratogens which induce enduring neurobehavioral abnormalities in the exposed offspring. Several preclinical findings reviewed in this paper are in line with clinical studies reporting hyperactivity, cognitive impairments and altered emotionality in humans exposed in utero to cannabis. Conversely, genetic, environmental and social factors could also influence the neurobiological effects of early cannabis exposure in humans.