Most people understand the harm smoking nicotine or drinking alcohol can have on an unborn baby, but when it comes to smoking marijuana to treat morning sickness, anxiety, and lower back pain, pregnant women need more information about the harmful effects.
THC exposure makes the brain's dopamine neurons hyperactive
That's according to new research from a team of researchers led by the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Relying on preclinical animal models, the researchers found prenatal exposure to THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, makes the brain's dopamine neurons hyperactive.
It also increases sensitivity to the behavioral effects of THC in children during the pre-adolescent phase. The researchers concluded it could increase the risk of psychotic disorders including schizophrenia later in the adolescent's life. The research was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
The team of researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the University of Cagliari (Italy) and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences found the behavioral effects of being exposed to THC in the womb was caused partially by hyperactivity of dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area of the brain. That region regulates behaviors that are motivated by something.
Researchers able to correct problems caused by THC exposure
The researchers were also able to correct the problems and brain abnormalities caused by the exposure to marijuana in utero by treating the animals in the trial with pregnenolone, which is a drug approved by the Federal Drug Administration that's in clinical trials to treat cannabis use disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder.
"This is an exciting finding that suggests a therapeutic approach for children born to mothers who used cannabis during pregnancy," said Joseph Cheer, Ph.D., a Professor of Anatomy & Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in a press release highlighting the results of their work. "It also raises important questions that need to be addressed such as how does pregnenolone exert its effects and how can we improve its efficacy? Do these detrimental effects persist into adulthood, and if so, could they also be treated in a similar way?"
The researchers noted doctors should caution pregnant patients about the potentially harmful effects of using cannabis while they are pregnant.