March 13, 2009

Science, policy often clash when it comes to prenatal drug use

Science, policy often clash when it comes to prenatal drug use

Current policies surrounding legal and illegal drug use by expectant mothers may have more negative effects on the fetus than the drug itself, according to a Perspectives article featured in the April issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Policymakers should incorporate scientific evidence when determining how to punish or regulate prenatal exposure to drugs instead of defaulting to the popular view that illegal equals 'more dangerous' and legal equals 'less dangerous,' the authors say.

In some cases, legal drugs such as nicotine and alcohol can actually be more harmful to the developing fetus and its brain development than illicit drugs such as cocaine, according to Vanderbilt Department of Pharmacology co-authors Pat Levitt, Ph.D., Gregg Stanwood, Ph.D., and Barbara Thompson, Ph.D.

“Scientists often find it bewildering that what seem to be basic concepts of development are misrepresented or misinterpreted when policy decisions are being made,” the authors wrote. “Policies are then established that are not based on the scientifically recognized factors that regulate development.”

A Tennessee mother-to-be was jailed last year and accused of using a deadly weapon against her unborn child when her emergency room toxicology screen came back positive for cocaine.

These cases may encourage pregnant women addicted to drugs to avoid prenatal medical care while a pregnant woman who smokes cigarettes may be doing more damage to her fetus with no legal worries.

Neurodevelopmental consequences of prenatal drug exposure for cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and amphetamine or methamphetamine, antidepressant and other prescription medications are compared in the article.

“It is clear that the idea that illegal drugs are more harmful to the unborn fetus than legal drugs is incorrect,” the authors wrote.

Research findings in humans and animal models should be used to inform better policy and program development to reduce the population of children who are exposed to drugs prenatally and improve their lives, the authors concluded. Science needs to be used to inform the way that members of society think about problems such as these.