Prenatal Cannabis and Tobacco Exposure in Relation to Brain Morphology: A Prospective Neuroimaging Study in Young Children

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Jun 15;79(12):971-9. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.08.024. Epub 2015 Sep 1.


Background: Cannabis use during pregnancy has been associated with negative behavioral outcomes and psychopathology in offspring. However, there has been little research evaluating alterations in brain structure as a result of maternal cannabis use. In this prospective study, we investigated the association between prenatal cannabis exposure and brain morphology in young children.

Methods: We matched 96 children prenatally exposed to tobacco only (without cannabis) with 113 unexposed control subjects on the basis of age and gender and subsequently selected 54 children exposed to prenatal cannabis (mostly combined with tobacco exposure). These children (aged 6 to 8 years) were part of a population-based study in the Netherlands, the Generation R Study, and were followed from pregnancy onward. We assessed brain volumetric measures and cortical thickness in magnetic resonance imaging scans using FreeSurfer. We performed vertexwise analyses in FreeSurfer and linear regression analyses adjusting for relevant covariates using Statistical Package for the Social Sciences.

Results: Prenatal cannabis exposure was not associated with global brain volumes, such as total brain volume, gray matter volume, or white matter volume. However, prenatal cannabis exposure was associated with differences in cortical thickness: compared with nonexposed control subjects, cannabis-exposed children had thicker frontal cortices. Prenatal tobacco exposure compared with nonexposed control subjects was associated with cortical thinning, primarily in the superior frontal and superior parietal cortices.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest an association between prenatal cannabis exposure and cortical thickness in children. Further research is needed to explore the causal nature of this association.

Keywords: Brain morphology; Neuroimaging; Pediatric brain development; Population-based study; Prenatal cannabis exposure; Prenatal tobacco exposure.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cannabis / adverse effects*
  • Cerebral Cortex / diagnostic imaging*
  • Cerebral Cortex / growth & development
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Netherlands
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / diagnostic imaging*
  • Smoking / adverse effects*