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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Fetal Drug Syndrome

Q. I am working on a research paper on fetal drug syndrome/fetal drug effects. I would like to find any information or even sources I could use for information on both the short term and long term psychological (and even physical) effects of children born addicted to drugs.

A. Less is known about this important topic than we would like. You should take a look at the comprehensive review by Johnson & Leff, from the University of Maryland (Pediatrics 1999 May; 103:(5 pt. 2):1085-99). These authors note that "the vast literature on children of alcoholics (COAs) far outweighs the literature on children of other drug abusers. Relatively little is known about children of heroin addicts, cocaine abusers, or polydrug abusers.

Nonetheless, many researchers suggest that the children of addicted parents are at greater risk for later dysfunctional behaviors..." One recent review of prenatal cocaine use concluded that offspring can show "...a variety of behavioral, visual, hearing, and language disorders" (Church et al, Ann NY Acad Sci 1998 Jun 21; 846(5 pt 2):12-28). With respect to COAs, the literature strongly suggests that "...COAs are at risk for a variety of problems that may include behavioral, psychologic, cognitive, or neuropsychologic deficits." You can reach Dr. Johnson at jjohnson@umpsy4.ab.umd.edu.

The research in this area is complicated by the interactive effects of in utero drug exposure, and the environmental and psychological deprivation that often accompanies parental use of illicit drugs. For example, newborn infants exposed to methadone in utero may show some direct effects of the drug, such as small head circumference, motor incoordination, and delayed motor skills. However, poor parent-infant relationships may be an aggravating factor in the development of these infants (see Hans SL, Ann NY Acad Sci 1989; 562:195-207).

May 2001

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