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Structural, Metabolic, and Functional Brain Abnormalities as a Result of Prenatal Exposure to Drugs of Abuse: Evidence from Neuroimaging


Prenatal exposure to alcohol and stimulants negatively affects the developing trajectory of the central nervous system in many ways. Recent advances in neuroimaging methods have allowed researchers to study the structural, metabolic, and functional abnormalities resulting from prenatal exposure to drugs of abuse in living human subjects. Here we review the neuroimaging literature of prenatal exposure to alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Neuroimaging studies of prenatal alcohol exposure have reported differences in the structure and metabolism of many brain systems, including in frontal, parietal, and temporal regions, in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, as well as in the white matter tracts that connect these brain regions. Functional imaging studies have identified significant differences in brain activation related to various cognitive domains as a result of prenatal alcohol exposure. The published literature of prenatal exposure to cocaine and methamphetamine is much smaller, but evidence is beginning to emerge suggesting that exposure to stimulant drugs in utero may be particularly toxic to dopamine-rich basal ganglia regions. Although the interpretation of such findings is somewhat limited by the problem of polysubstance abuse and by the difficulty of obtaining precise exposure histories in retrospective studies, such investigations provide important insights into the effects of drugs of abuse on the structure, function, and metabolism of the developing human brain. These insights may ultimately help clinicians develop better diagnostic tools and devise appropriate therapeutic interventions to improve the condition of children with prenatal exposure to drugs of abuse.

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