Smoking in pregnancy linked to brain changes and teenage drug experimentation

02 Nov 2009 16:53:00.000

PA 281/09

Children born to mothers who smoked during pregnancy are more likely to experiment with drugs in their teens, the findings of a new study suggest.


Research carried out by The University of Nottingham and a number of Canadian Universities found that children exposed to cigarette smoke in the womb were more likely to experiment with drugs, such as alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, during adolescence.


The study, published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, suggests that prenatal exposure to maternal smoking may interfere with the development of the brain — particularly a part of the brain associated with evaluating rewards and regulating emotion called the orbitofrontal cortex.

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MRI scans of almost 400 teenagers found that in those whose mothers had smoked while pregnant, the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) was thinner. Scientists found a correlation between thinning of the OFC and the likelihood of drug experimentation - the thinner the OFC, the more different drugs had been tried during adolescence.

The most commonly used illegal substances among the participants in the study were alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, stimulants and psychedelic drugs.

The evidence suggests that maternal cigarette smoking may re-wire the "€˜reward"€™ circuitry of the brain of the unborn child, altering the psychoactive effects of drugs and, in turn, drug-seeking behaviour.

Nottingham academics worked on the study with Canadian colleagues at the University of Montreal, McGill University and the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi.

They noted that cigarette smoking during pregnancy is not uncommon "€” between 16 and 60 per cent of pregnant women smoke, with prevalence varying from country to country and according to socioeconomic group. There is growing evidence of increased rates of behavioural problems among offspring exposed to maternal cigarette smoking in the womb and after birth.

Professor Tomas Paus, Director of The University of Nottingham"€™s Brain and Body Centre and the senior author of the study, said: "€œThese findings demonstrate significant consequences of prenatal exposure to maternal cigarette smoking on the offspring brain. But our findings need to be interpreted with caution: we could only show an association, not a causal effect of maternal smoking on brain & behaviour. Such causality can be (and has been) demonstrated only in experimental models. It is also important to note that almost half of the children of mothers smoking during pregnancy showed no differences in the brain and behaviour "€” suggesting that something protected them from the adverse effect of cigarette smoke"€.

Dr. Shahrdad Lotfipour, the first author of the study and currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of California in Los Angeles, said: "€œIt was my training in pharmacology and neuroscience that helped me understand what might be going on in the human brain .... An integration of both fields turned out to be important at the end"€. 

- Ends -

Notes to editors : The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the Times Higher Education-QS World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as "€˜world-leading"€™ or "€˜internationally excellent"€™. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation "€” School of Pharmacy), and was named "€˜Entrepreneurial University of the Year"€™ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.

Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives ( in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Tomas Paus , Brain and Body Centre, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 9515362,

Tim Utton

Tim Utton - Deputy Director of Communications

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8092 Location: University Park

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