Regional brain morphometry and impulsivity in adolescents following prenatal exposure to cocaine and tobacco

JAMA Pediatr. 2013 Apr;167(4):348-54. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.550.


Importance: Animal studies have suggested that prenatal cocaine exposure (PCE) deleteriously influences the developing nervous system, in part attributable to its site of action in blocking the function of monoamine reuptake transporters, increasing synaptic levels of serotonin and dopamine.

Objective: To examine the brain morphologic features and associated impulsive behaviors in adolescents following prenatal exposure to cocaine and/or tobacco.

Design: Magnetic resonance imaging data and behavioral measures were collected from adolescents followed up longitudinally in the Maternal Lifestyle Study.

Setting: A hospital-based research center.

Participants: A total of 40 adolescent participants aged 13 to 15 years were recruited, 20 without PCE and 20 with PCE; a subset of each group additionally had tobacco exposure. Participants were selected and matched based on head circumference at birth, gestational age, maternal alcohol use, age, sex, race/ethnicity, IQ, family poverty, and socioeconomic status.

Main outcome measures: Subcortical volumetric measures of the thalamus, caudate, putamen, pallidum, hippocampus, amygdala, and nucleus accumbens; cortical thickness measures of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and ventral medial prefrontal cortex; and impulsivity assessed by Conners' Continuous Performance Test and the Sensation Seeking Scale for Children.

Results: After controlling for covariates, cortical thickness of the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was significantly thinner in adolescents following PCE (P = .03), whereas the pallidum volume was smaller in adolescents following prenatal tobacco exposure (P = .03). Impulsivity was correlated with thalamic volume following either PCE (P = .05) or prenatal tobacco exposure (P = .04).

Conclusions and relevance: Prenatal cocaine or tobacco exposure can differentially affect structural brain maturation during adolescence and underlie enhanced susceptibility to impulsivity. Additional studies with larger sample sizes are warranted.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Cocaine-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects* / psychology
  • Smoking / adverse effects*