Does Ecstasy Hurt Unborn Babies?

Ecstasy use while pregnant causes infant developmental problems and affects gender of baby

February 29, 2012 / Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

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(dailyRx News) Using ecstasy is no way to escape the discomfort of pregnancy. The first study to look at its impact on babies reveals it can cause developmental delays that might spell trouble later.

Ecstasy is usually made up of a variety of substances, depending on who makes it and how, but its primary ingredient is the chemical 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine, shortened to MDMA. Other components may include caffeine, LSD or amphetamines.

"Don't do illegal drugs, especially while pregnant."

A study led by Lynn T. Singer, Ph.D., a professor of environmental health sciences, pediatrics and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, looked at the effects of MDMA on fetuses and infants.

The researchers interviewed 96 women who were participating in The University of East London Drugs and Infancy Study, which investigates pregnant women's use of recreational drugs.

Women answered questions about substances they used, including ecstasy, and underwent a psychiatric evaluation. Most of the women had taken various illegal drugs before and during their pregnancies.

Then Singer's team tracked the growth, cognitive development and gross motor and coordination milestones in the women's babies. They compared the babies who were and were not exposed to MDMA at birth and at four months old.

The four-month-olds who had been exposed to ecstasy had poorer coordination and reached certain milestones, such as holding their heads up, later than the unexposed babies - even after adjusting for other substances the mothers were taking.

Among the other gross motor skills that appeared to suffer in ecstasy-exposed infants included eye-hand coordination, sitting up with support, and turning from their backs on to their sides - all of which could signify future developmental delays.

Future research should be done to explore the possible connection between how much ecstasy a woman uses and its possible impact on motor skills, said Singer.

Ecstasy could affect babies' gross motor skills because it's known to reduce serotonin in the brain, a neurotransmitter involved in gross motor control, according to co-author Andy Parrott, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Swansea University in Wales, U.K.

“The psychomotor and related psychological problems identified in these four-month old babies are very worrying, but perhaps not particularly surprising,” Parrott said.

Serotonin plays a part in moods, sleep and anxiety, and previous research models have shown that the levels of serotonin - which is important in forming unborn babies' brains - can affect the future learning and memory skills of children.

"The potential harmful effects of ecstasy exposure on prenatal and infant development have long been a concern," Singer said. "The drug's negative effects are particularly risky for pregnant women, who may use the drug without being aware of their condition."

The researchers also found that the group of babies with exposure to ecstasy before birth had a higher percentage of males born instead of the one-to-one ratio typically seen in births and seen in the group of babies not exposed to MDMA.

Among the women themselves, ecstasy users experienced more social, health and employment problems from their drug use than women who did not use MDMA.

The researchers' funding, provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, will extend for the first 18 months of the children's lives so that Singer's team can continue to track the children's development at one year and a year and a half.

The study appears in the February 28 issue of Neurotoxicology and Teratology. Information regarding potential conflicts of interest was unavailable.