Altered motor development following late gestational alcohol and cannabinoid exposure in rats

Neurotoxicol Teratol. 2019 May-Jun:73:31-41. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2019 Mar 31.


Cannabis is the most commonly used illicit drug among pregnant women, and rates are likely to increase given recent legalization. In addition, half of pregnant women who report consuming cannabis also report drinking alcohol. However, little is known about the consequences of prenatal cannabis alone or in combination with alcohol, particularly with cannabis products that are continually increasing in potency of the primary psychoactive constituent in cannabis, Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The current study investigated the effects of early exposure to cannabinoids during the brain growth spurt on early physical and motor development alone (Experiment 1) or in combination with alcohol (Experiment 2). In Experiment 1, Sprague-Dawley rat pups were exposed to a cannabinoid receptor agonist (CP-55,940 [CP]; 0.1, 0.25, 0.4 mg/kg/day), the drug vehicle, or a saline control from postnatal days (PD) 4-9. In Experiment 2, rat pups were exposed to CP (0.4 mg/kg/day) or the vehicle, and were additionally intubated with alcohol (11.9% v/v; 5.25 g/kg/day) or received a sham intubation. Subjects in both experiments were tested on a motor development task (PD 12-20) and a motor coordination task during adolescence (PD 30-32). Both developmental cannabinoid and alcohol exposure separately decreased body growth throughout development, and combined exposure exacerbated these effects, although only alcohol exposure induced long-term body weight reductions. Developmental cannabinoid exposure advanced early motor development, whereas alcohol exposure delayed development, and subjects given combined exposure did not differ from controls on some measures. Alcohol exposure impaired motor coordination later in life. In contrast, cannabinoid exposure, by itself, did not significantly affect long-term motor coordination, but did exacerbate alcohol-related impairments in motor coordination among females. These results suggest that cannabinoid exposure may not only alter development by itself, but may exacerbate alcohol's teratogenic effects in specific behavioral domains. These findings have important implications not only for individuals affected by prenatal exposure, but also for establishing public policy for women regarding cannabis use during pregnancy.

Keywords: Alcohol; Cannabinoid; Cannabis; Motor coordination; Motor development; Prenatal.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weight / drug effects
  • Cannabinoids / adverse effects*
  • Drug Synergism
  • Ethanol / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / etiology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley / growth & development


  • Cannabinoids
  • Ethanol