Effects of prenatal cocaine exposure on early postnatal rodent brain structure and diffusion properties

Neurotoxicol Teratol. Jan-Feb 2015;47:80-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ntt.2014.11.007. Epub 2014 Nov 22.


Prenatal cocaine exposure has been associated with numerous behavioral phenotypes in clinical populations, including impulsivity, reduced attention, alterations in social behaviors, and delayed language and sensory-motor development. Detecting associated changes in brain structure in these populations has proven difficult, and results have been inconclusive and inconsistent. Due to their more controlled designs, animal models may shed light on the neuroanatomical changes caused by prenatal cocaine; however, to maximize clinical relevance, data must be carefully collected using translational methods. The goal of this study was two-fold: (1) to determine if prenatal cocaine alters developmental neuroanatomy using methods that are available to human researchers, specifically structural MRI and diffusion tensor imaging, and (2) to determine the feasibility of rodent in vivo neuroimaging for usage in longitudinal studies of developmental disorders. Cocaine-exposed (prenatal days 1-20, 30mg/kg/day) rat pups were sedated and imaged live using diffusion tensor imaging and postmortem (fixed) using magnetic resonance histology on postnatal day 14. Volume and diffusion properties in whole brain as well as specific regions of interest were then assessed from the resulting images. Whole brain analyses revealed that cocaine-exposed animals showed no change in whole brain volume. Additionally, we found alterations in fractional anisotropy across regions associated with reward processing and emotional regulation, especially in the thalamus and globus pallidus, as well as sex-dependent effects of cocaine in the right cortex. Reductions in fractional anisotropy were paired with reductions only in axial diffusivity, which preliminarily suggests that the changes observed here may be due to axonal damage, as opposed to reductions in myelination of the affected regions/pathways. Our data indicate that prenatal cocaine may target a number of developing brain structures but does not result in overt changes to brain volumes. These results highlight not only the brain alterations that result from prenatal cocaine but also the advancements in live imaging that allow longitudinal study designs in other models.

Keywords: Development; Diffusion tensor imaging; Magnetic resonance histology; Prenatal cocaine; Rats.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Anisotropy
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Brain / growth & development*
  • Cocaine / toxicity*
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors / toxicity*
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / pathology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Reward


  • Dopamine Uptake Inhibitors
  • Cocaine