New evidence for neurobehavioral effects of in utero cocaine exposure

J Pediatr. 1996 Oct;129(4):581-90. doi: 10.1016/s0022-3476(96)70124-5.


Most studies of prenatal cocaine exposure have found gestational age or intrauterine growth deficits but few, if any, cognitive effects. In a large, well-controlled study we detected cognitive deficits in relation to heavy cocaine exposure. These findings demonstrate that prenatal exposure to cocaine at sufficiently high doses early in pregnancy has the potential to produce cognitive changes in infants and that more focused, narrow-band tests may be necessary to detect these subtle neurobehavioral effects. A total of 464 inner-city, black infants whose mothers were recruited prenatally on the basis of pregnancy alcohol and cocaine use were tested at 6.5, 12, and 13 months of age. Standard analyses, based on presence or absence of cocaine use during pregnancy, confirmed effects on gestational age but failed to detect cognitive effects. A new approach to identifying heavy users found that heavy exposure early in pregnancy was related to faster responsiveness on an infant visual expectancy test but to poorer recognition memory and information processing, deficits consistent with prior human and animal findings. These persistent neurobehavioral effects of heavy prenatal cocaine exposure appear to be direct effects of exposure and independent of effects on gestational age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Alcoholism / complications
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Child Development
  • Cocaine*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / complications*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Smoking / adverse effects


  • Cocaine