During Pregnancy May Cause Brain Damage,
Behavior Problems In Babies
Rush Presbyterian St.
Luke's Medical Center
Women who take the drug Ecstasy in their first
trimester of pregnancy may be putting their unborn child at risk for
brain damage, according to a study published in the September issue of
the journal Neurotoxicity and Teratology.
Jack W. Lipton, PhD, a neuroscientist at
Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center in Chicago, demonstrated
that fetal exposure in rats to the drug Ecstasy during a period
analogous to the first trimester in humans causes changes in the young
rat's brain chemistry and behavior. The study was funded in part by the
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Ecstasy also is known as MDMA
"The limited data that exist suggest that women who
use Ecstasy stop taking it when they learn they are pregnant," says Dr.
Nora D. Volkow, director of the NIDA. "But many of the animal studies
that linked this drug to neurological changes and learning impairments
were conducted in situations analogous to the third trimester in humans.
Thus, this study sought to investigate a more true-to-life situation by
looking at neurobiological changes caused by Ecstasy early in
The researchers injected the drug twice daily from day
14 through day 20 of pregnancy. An equal number of pregnant rats were
given sham injections of saline twice daily during the same period as a
placebo. The most striking finding was that 21-day-old Ecstasy exposed
rats had a 502% increase in the number of dopamine neuron fibers in the
frontal cortex as compared to controls. The frontal cortex is important
in planning, impulse control and attention.
Similar but smaller increases in dopaminergic fiber
density were also evident in the striatum -- an area involved in
movement and reward and the nucleus accumbens -- the primary site of
action of rewarding stimuli. The investigators believe that this
hyperinnervation is either due to MDMA-induced reductions in the normal
cell loss that occurs during fetal development, or MDMA-induced
increases in chemicals known as trophic factors which can mediate growth
and survival of brain cells.
Lipton and his colleagues also found that behavioral
changes were evident as well. When 21-day-old rats exposed to Ecstasy in
the womb were placed in a new environment away from their littermates,
they spent significantly more time exploring and did not habituate as
easily to the new environment. Such findings suggest that the Ecstasy
exposed rats may have learning or attention deficits or alterations in
their anxiety levels. Another possibility is that they are simply
hyperactive as a result of their in utero exposure.
"Our findings show that exposing rats to Ecstasy at a
time of prenatal development that correlates with the first trimester in
humans results in lasting changes in brain chemistry and behavior,"
notes Lipton. "This research warrants the continued monitoring of
children exposed to this drug."
Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center is an
academic medical center that encompasses the 824-bed Presbyterian-St.
Luke's Hospital (including Rush Children's Hospital), the 110-bed
Johnston R. Bowman Health Center and Rush University. Rush University,
with more than 1,270 students, is home to one of the first medical
schools in the Midwest, one of the nation's top-ranked nursing colleges,
as well as graduate programs in allied health and the basic sciences.
Rush is noted for bringing together clinical care and research to
address major health problems, including arthritis and orthopedic
disorders, cancer, heart disease, mental illness neurological disorders
and diseases associated with aging.