Study Focuses on Effects of Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Use

Published December 5, 2018

The National Institutes of Health is funding researchers in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology to study the effects of drinking, smoking and marijuana use during pregnancy.

Studying Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders

Roh-Yu Shen, PhD, and Samir Haj-Dahmane, PhD, each received five-year, $1.8 million grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to study fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), specifically in how prenatal alcohol exposure affects the brain.

Both Shen and Haj-Dahmane are senior scientists of pharmacology and toxicology at UB’s Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions (CRIA).

FASD are a group of deficits caused by alcohol use during pregnancy, and can include physical, cognitive and behavioral problems such as small brain size, attention deficits, learning disabilities, increased addiction risk and mood disorders.

Discerning Effects on Cognitive Function

Shen will investigate how prenatal alcohol exposure affects executive function, which refers to how the brain governs skills such as attention, planning, organization, time management and problem solving.

“Although we know FASDs are caused by drinking, we do not fully understand the exact neurological mechanisms that alter the brain,” Shen says. “In this study, we will investigate if prenatal alcohol exposure leads to immature neurodevelopment of the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region controlling executive function, and how this contributes to executive function deficits.”

Shen and her team will also investigate if interventions using enriched environment after birth can help the medial prefrontal cortex mature, and therefore prevent or reverse executive function problems.

These results could contribute to the development of effective interventions for FASDs, which are the most preventable development disorders in the U.S. 

Changes in Serotonin Can Increase Anxiety

Haj-Dahmane will explore the effects of prenatal alcohol drinking on psychiatric disorders associated with FASD.

“Not only do FASDs include developmental deficits, but they also can include psychiatric disorders, including major anxiety disorder,” Haj-Dahmane says.

“Dysfunction of the brain’s serotonin system is one of the major causes of anxiety disorder associated with FASD, yet how prenatal alcohol exposure alters the serotonin system has remained a long-standing question in FASD research,” he adds.

Haj-Dahmane’s study seeks to understand the mechanisms and precise neuronal circuitries that are changed in the serotonin system due to prenatal alcohol exposure, which may lead to new therapies to help psychiatric disorders associated with FASD.

Translational Study of Humans and Animals

Panayotis Thanos, PhD, research associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology, and Rina Das Eiden, PhD, are co-principal investigators on a two-year, $461,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Eiden is a member of the Department of Psychology in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. Both Thanos and Eiden are senior research scientists at the CRIA.

The grant is for a translational study of tobacco and marijuana use during pregnancy, using both human and animal samples. The current funding is for a two-year human study that will have four groups of children who were prenatally exposed to tobacco and/or cannabis at various levels. 

After completion of the human study, funds will be released for an additional three years for an animal study. The animal study will include light and heavy exposure groups for tobacco or cannabis and a combination of the two.

Subjects Examined for Number of Metrics

“Translational studies with human and animal models are essential for understanding not only the public health impact of co-occurring use, but also the biological mechanisms for such impact,” Thanos says.

The subjects will be examined for differences in body weight, behavior, attention, working memory, fetal growth, reaction to stress and inflammation.

“Nearly 30 percent of women who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy also report using marijuana,” Eiden says. “With many states moving toward legalizing marijuana, that number is likely to increase, so assessing the risks posed by prenatal use is more important than ever.”

Interdisciplinary Approach to Addiction Issues

CRIA is a research center of UB focused on addressing the causes, consequences, prevention and treatment of substance use disorders.

Its scientists are members of multiple departments and schools within UB, allowing CRIA to explore interdisciplinary methods to address addiction issues.

CRIA’s research programs are supported by federal, state and private foundation grants.