Health, behavioral problems linked to prenatal meth exposure

Friday, March 22, 2013

TU research shows babies exposed to meth release abnormal levels of stress hormone

Children with prenatal exposure to methamphetamines who are raised in adverse conditions stand a greater risk of developing health and behavioral problems later in life, according to research conducted by psychologists at The University of Tulsa.

A team of researchers from across the United States, including TU McFarlin Professor of Psychology Elana Newman and TU clinical psychology graduate student Namik Kirlic, studied the effects of Prenatal Methamphetamine Exposure (PME) on more than 100 2-year-olds whose mothers used meth during pregnancy. Toddlers exposed to meth released lower-than-normal levels of the stress hormone cortisol during high-stress situations such as brief separation from their mothers. These “blunted” cortisol responses are linked to higher odds of health and behavioral problems in young people – from substance abuse to delinquency to asthma.

Published in the May issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, the study suggests babies who experienced PME display decreased arousal, increased stress, lethargy and poor movement quality in the first five days of life. Long-term neurobehavioral deficits include poor motor skill performance, lower visual task performance, delayed verbal memory and lower full-scale intelligence quotient scores.

“The lack of hormonal stress response that we observed in these children has serious implications such as a greater risk for depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” said Kirlic, who served as lead author on the study.

According to researchers, the dull cortisol hormone response was related not only to higher meth exposure in the womb but also to adversity in the child’s environment. Children living in a more stable home exhibited normal hormonal response to stress. However, the lower levels of cortisol in those born with PME live with a much greater risk of experiencing traumatic life events at an early age such as physical violence and continued drug use by parents.

Although the findings suggest the effects of prenatal drug exposure and stress after birth take shape early, Newman said PME victims can show substantial improvements if placed in positive environments.

“Early intervention is vital for many of these children who live in stressful environments,” she said. “We need to focus resources on reaching these children during early infancy.”

For more information about PME research, please contact Newman at

Gail Banzet