Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant drug of abuse known for its ability to trigger addiction in repeated users. Current evidence suggests that a significant number of methamphetamine-using women continue to take the drug when they become pregnant. In a study published in March 2014 in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from eight U.S. institutions used information from a project called the Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle Study (IDEAL) to compare the learning skills of young children whose mothers used methamphetamine during pregnancy to the learning skills of young children whose mothers did not use the drug while pregnant.
Methamphetamine is chemically related to another stimulant substance, amphetamine, but has a stronger drug effect inside the brain and body. While doctors occasionally use a prescription, pharmaceutically produced form of the substance as a legitimate medical treatment for certain health problems, most of the methamphetamine available in America is made and consumed illegally. In many respects, meth-related chemical changes inside the brain’s pleasure center resemble the changes produced by exposure to a third stimulant substance, cocaine. However, methamphetamine stays in the body longer than cocaine and also triggers a more profound level of chemical alteration. In addition to prominent risks for drug dependence and addiction, serious health concerns associated with use/abuse of the drug include advanced dental damage, high blood pressure, heartbeat irregularities, convulsions, psychosis, and loss of normal body temperature control.
Methamphetamine and Pregnancy
Roughly 5 percent of all girls and women in their childbearing years use methamphetamine during pregnancy. According to the results of a study published in 2010 in the Maternal and Child Health Journal, rates of use among women who took the drug before getting pregnant may be far higher. For example, the authors of this study concluded that over 80 percent of the prior methamphetamine users enrolled in their project keep taking the drug during their first trimester of pregnancy; this rate tapered off to a still considerable 42 percent by the third trimester.
Generally speaking, researchers know less about the effects of meth use on pregnancy than they know about the effects of many other forms of substance use. However, currently identified negative impacts of the drug during pregnancy include a decline in the amount of oxygen and other nutrients delivered through the placenta and ongoing disruptions triggered by the presence of methamphetamine inside a developing child’s bloodstream. Specific pregnancy complications associated with intake of the drug include slowed fetal growth, birth defects, low birth weight, delayed or incomplete development of motor skills during childhood and delayed or incomplete development of mental/intellectual abilities during childhood.
Impact on Childhood Learning Skills
In the study published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers from UCLA, Brown University, the Mayo Clinic and five other institutions used information from 298 pairs of mothers and infants participating in the Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle Study to gauge the impact of methamphetamine exposure in the womb on the learning skills that children possess at the age of 7. One hundred fifty-one of the children participating in the study had mothers who used the drug while pregnant; the remaining 147 children had mothers who did not use the drug. The researchers used toxicology reports from pregnancy and the mothers’ reports to identify the children in each group. In addition, each mother participated in a questionnaire-based interview process designed to gauge the learning level of each child.
The researchers concluded that, compared to the children whose mothers didn’t use methamphetamine during pregnancy, the children whose mothers did use the drug were more likely to experience problems doing such things as taking in new information, organizing themselves at school, finishing their classroom assignments and keeping their attention centered on their classroom assignments. The children affected by fetal methamphetamine exposure had a roughly 180 percent greater chance of encountering these difficulties than the average child.
Significance and Considerations
The authors of the study published in The Journal of Pediatrics note that children born to mothers who used methamphetamine during pregnancy do not apparently have heightened risks for developing diagnosable childhood behavioral disorders such as oppositional defiant disorder or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, they also note that frustration with learning difficulties can still potentially lead to behavioral or conduct problems in affected children.