The illicit use of drugs is linked to several adverse health outcomes. Moreover, over recent years, the illicit use of drugs during pregnancy has increased, which may be associated with adverse health outcomes in prenatally exposed children. This study aims to investigate the effect of maternal prenatal drug abuse on newborn brain structure, tissue organization, and metabolite concentrations.

This is a cohort study that included a total of 118 mothers, 29 (25%) in the cocaine group, 29 (25%) in the marijuana group, 18 (15%) in the methadone/heroin group, and 42 (25%) in the control group. The primary outcome of the study was adverse neonatal events determined using unsedated magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Exposure to all three drugs resulted in anatomic abnormalities, including smaller volumes in the dorsal, medial, and ventral surfaces of the frontal lobe. Dose-related increases in volumes in the lateral temporal lobe, dorsal parietal lobe, and superior frontal gyrus were also detected. Dose-related increases in spectroscopy metabolite concentrations, decreases in T2 relaxometry times, and increases in diffusion tensor measures of tissue organization were comparable across exposures.

The research concluded that prenatal drug exposure is associated with accelerated normal fetal brain maturation, which mediated with poor 12-month infant outcomes.