Science

Newborn hair signals expectant mothers' meth use: study

Pregnant women who use methamphetamines are exposing their fetuses to the potentially dangerous drugs, a landmark Canadian study has confirmed.

A newborn's hairsuggestsifawoman took methamphetamines knowing she was pregnant,a landmark Canadian studyhas found.

The study by researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children involved tests on hair samples from 8,000 Canadian mothers and newbornscollected between 1997 and 2005.

As suspected, whenexpectant mothersuse the drug, itmovesthrough the placenta to the fetus.Now researchers havefound evidence of methamphetamines in the hair of some newborns.

Fetal hair does not start growing until the last three months of pregnancy,the study's principal author, Dr. Gideon Koren, told CBC Newsworld on Tuesday.

"If you find it in a baby, it has to get there,"said Koren, head of the hospital's Motherisk program."Babies do not do drugs, so it's Mum who had to do it."

If the drug is present in a baby's hair, its an "ominous sign of addiction."

While blood and urine samples cannot determine long-term use or differentiate between various drugs, the new test is accurate and sensitive, Koren said. Hospitals and child protection agencies are using it to track the extent of the problem.

Methamphetamines, including crystal meth, are powerful stimulants that boost alertness and cause euphoria. But the highly addictive drugs also depress appetite, and long-term use can lead to brain damage and psychotic behaviour. The drug causes blood vessels to constrict, and may prevent blood from reaching vital organs.

Because crystal meth is relatively easy to make and buy— it can be cooked up in home laboratories with accessible ingredients and bought for $5 to $10 a hit— global use of the drug is skyrocketing, especially among young women, the researchers say.

'It's a looming epidemic; it's like a big black cloud.'— Dr. Gideon Koren

While national statistics for Canada are not readily available — figures vary from province to province—an estimated 500,000 Americans are believed to be regular users, including five per cent beingpregnant women.

More addicted mothers expected

The study waspublished online ahead of the print version of the fetal and neonatal edition of the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

The hair samples were sent by doctors or children's aid societies toSick Children's Motherisk Laboratory for analysis.

Almost 400 of the hair samples tested positive for meth. The numberincluded 11 mother and baby pairs.

The first positive cases— six in all— were found in 2003. The next year, eight hair samples contained evidence of methamphetamine use. But in 2005, the number soared to more than 300.

"It's a looming epidemic; it's like a big black cloud," said Koren. "For sure we know that a significant group of Canadian kids have addicted mothers.

"I expect … we will see more and more."

Methamphetamine users were also more likely to use other drugs, the study found. In fact, 85 per cent of the 396 samples that came back positive for meth also tested positive for at least one other illegal drug, predominantly cocaine.

While the short- and long-term effects of methamphetamines on the developing fetus are not fully known, Koren said animal and small-scale human studies suggest the drug may affect normal growth and development.

The blood-brain barrier in a fetus is much more permeable than that of an adult, "so there's no question whatsoever that it goes into the brain of the baby," Koren explained. "There's all the theoretical reasons to believe it will have long-term effects on the babies.

"That's the next thing we're going to do — we will follow up these babies."

Poor nutrition a concern for mothers

Wende Wood, a psychiatric pharmacist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said babies whose mothers abused drugs during pregnancy tend to be bornprematurely and underweight.

It is difficult to tell, however, whether these babies are underdeveloped because of drugs or because the mother wasn't caring for herself properly during pregnancy, Wood said. A big problem for somepeople taking methamphetamines iseating properly.

"With stimulants in particular, like meth and cocaine, they suppress the appetite. So a lot of the problems could be just as much from the poor self-care and poor nutrition as from the drug itself."

Dr. Heather Scott, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Nova Scotia's IWK Health Centre, said the study confirms the long-held suspicion that methamphetamines do enter the placenta and subsequently the developing fetus.

'My gut feeling …is that [methamphetamine use] is on the rise, but I think we're not very good at getting a handle on it.'— Dr. Heather Scott

Knowing that may make doctors and other health-care providers more vigilant in trying to identify and help expectant mothers they suspect may be abusing drugs.

"My gut feeling — and this is strictly my gut feeling— is that [methamphetamine use] is on the rise, but I think we're not very good at getting a handle on it," Scott said Monday from Halifax.

Experts say methamphetamines are used by peopleof all socioeconomic levels — from street people looking for a cheap buzz, to long-haul truck drivers who need to stay awake, and even some "soccer moms" looking for a means to keep up with the demands of work, family and social obligations.

"So I'm sure we're missing people who use the drug," said Scott of prenatal-care providers, "because we never ask the question."

Wood said the study suggests a means for health-care providers to confirm suspected methamphetamine exposure in newborns, knowledge that could help them key in on potential developmental deficits in little ones, so that programs could be tailored to boost their development.

"Even if babies are born with problems, the postnatal period is so important and so much ground can be made up," she said.

With files from the Canadian Press

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