Infants whose mothers used the recreational drug ecstasy during pregnancy balanced their heads at a later age, and showed delays in eye-hand coordination, turning from back to side and being able to sit with support at age 4 months, according to the first study to examine the impact of prenatal ecstasy exposure on babies.
The stimulant and hallucinogen, one of the most widely used illegal drugs among young people, is known scientifically as 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine or MDMA. The small study of 96 participants from The University of East London Drugs and Infancy Study also found that ecstasy appears to affect the chemical signaling that determines gender. More male babies were born to women who had used ecstasy while pregnant, whereas normally the ratio of boys to girls would be 50-50.
Study authors – who came from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Swansea University in Wales – note that ecstasy can deplete levels of serotonin, which carries nerve impulses between cells, regulating mood, sleep, anxiety and gross motor control. It plays a vital role in the early formation of a baby’s brain, and altering levels could have long-term impact on learning and memory.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, and appears in the Feb. 28 issue of Neurotoxicology and Teratology. Researchers will collect data on the children again at age 12 months, and hope to continue following them well into childhood, noting whether delays continue or get worse and gauging the long-term effects of ecstasy exposure in utero.