Exposure to opioids in the womb may affect an area of the newborn brain that regulates emotions, a new study shows.
Researchers used MRIs to assess brain activity in 16 full-term infants while they slept, specifically focusing on connectivity in a region called the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions such as anger, fear, sadness and aggression.
Eight of the infants were exposed to opioids in the womb, according to the study being presented Monday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), in Chicago.
"Our early results show significant differences in the way the amygdala connects to different brain regions between the infants exposed to opioids and the opioid-naive infants," said researcher Dr. Rupa Radhakrishnan. She's an assistant professor of radiology and imaging sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine.
"We still need to study what the clinical implication of this finding may be," Radhakrishnan said in a meeting news release.
Opioid use in pregnancy can pose serious risks to maternal, fetal and infant health, and it has become a major public health crisis.
Babies who've been exposed to opioids in the womb suffer from drug withdrawal, or a group of conditions known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, after birth, and it's thought that exposure to opioids in the womb may cause lasting harm to brain development and behavior.
"Little is known about brain changes and their relationship to long-term neurological outcomes in infants who are exposed to opioids in utero," Radhakrishnan said.
"Many studies have looked at the impact of long-term opioid use on the adult and adolescent brain, but it is not clear whether social and environmental factors may have influenced those outcomes," she explained. "By studying infants' brain activity soon after birth, we are in a better position to understand the effect of opioids on the developing brain."
Research presented at meeting is considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on opioid use during pregnancy.
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