Maternal smoking during pregnancy and offspring brain structure and function: review and agenda for future research

Nicotine Tob Res. 2012 Apr;14(4):388-97. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntr191. Epub 2011 Dec 16.


Introduction: Maternal smoking during pregnancy (MSDP) has been associated with long-term neurobehavioral and cognitive deficits in offspring. Animal models demonstrate alterations in brain structure and function following prenatal nicotine exposure. However, few studies have assessed the relationship between MSDP and brain development in humans. Therefore, the aims of this review are (a) to synthesize findings from the small number of human studies investigating effects of MSDP on offspring brain development and (b) to outline an agenda for future research in this nascent area.

Methods: We searched MEDLINE and Psychinfo databases for human studies of MSDP and offspring brain structure and/or function.

Results: Eleven studies meeting our search criteria were identified; 6 studies investigated effects of MSDP on brain structure; 5 examined effects on brain function. Across studies, MSDP was associated with decreased volume/thickness of the cerebellum and corpus callosum, increased auditory brainstem responses, and lack of coordination across brain regions during information and auditory processing.

Conclusions: Results from the small number of human studies revealed effects of MSDP on brain structure and function, highlighting potential neural pathways linking MSDP and offspring neurobehavioral and cognitive deficits. Given the limited amount of research in this area, we propose an agenda for future research. Gold standard studies would utilize longitudinal designs, integrated biological and maternal report measures of MSDP, and repeated measures of brain structure/function and neurobehavioral deficits across key developmental periods.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / anatomy & histology
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Smoking / adverse effects*