A recent study conducted in the Netherlands adds another item to the list of reasons why women who become pregnant should quit smoking. According to their study, moms-to-be who quit – even if quitting happens after pregnancy begins – bear infants who have fewer emotional problems as young children.
The researchers examined brain scans of 226 children who were 6 years old at the time of the study. Half of the children’s mothers smoked during pregnancy, while half did not. Exactly 17 of the mothers who smoked during their pregnancy quit smoking shortly after finding out they’d become pregnant.
The good news is that smoking rates among pregnant women have declined steadily in recent decades; about 25% of pregnant women smoked in 1980, while just 12% did in 2000.
Results of the Study
After looking at the brain scans, the researchers determined that children of mothers in the smoking group who smoked during their entire pregnancy had a thinner brain cortex and smaller brains overall than children whose mothers did not smoke. These children were also more susceptible to anxiety, depression and other emotional issues.
Interestingly, the brain scans and emotional well-being scores were roughly the same for children whose mothers quit smoking early in pregnancy as they were for children whose mothers never smoked at all.
The researchers also determined that the children’s emotional problems were linked to the superior frontal cortex’s thickness, with thinner cortexes equating to more pronounced emotional issues. Previous studies have also indicated that the superior frontal cortex is linked with mood.
Finally, the researchers admitted that further similar studies should be conducted in order to confirm the results, especially since such a low number of mothers in their study quit smoking during pregnancy.
How Nicotine Inhibits Brain Development
This is far from the first study to link smoking during pregnancy with poor infant health. Women who smoke are more likely to have a premature or stillborn baby, and fetal growth is often inhibited.
The exact reason as to why tobacco use is harmful to fetal brain development is uncertain, though studies on animals have indicated that levels of signaling chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters are changed by the introduction of nicotine. Nicotine may also prevent neurons from developing in their proper places early on in brain development, according to the researchers.
Smoking may also inhibit fetal brain development indirectly by constricting the blood vessels of the mother, which in turn limits the supply of oxygen and blood to the fetus.
The Bottom Line
Women who quit smoking after becoming pregnant could be saving their babies from reduced brain development and childhood emotional problems, according to a new study from researchers in the Netherlands.
The full text of the study is available online in Neuropsychopharmacology.