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Opioid Drugs

Opioids Affect the Brain Development, Behavior of Unborn Babies

— August 9, 2022

Opioid use in pregnancy can affect the minds and behavior of children long-after birth.

The opioid epidemic sees no boundaries when it comes to who it can affect should an individual become addicted. People across the nation, and throughout the world, from all walks of life, are falling victim to the devastating results of being stuck in the cycle. Some started using after a legitimate physician’s prescription while others chose to experiment with drugs on the street. Many turned to street drugs when their prescriptions ran out. Regardless of how each addict got stuck in the cycle, it is a very difficult one to break. Unfortunately, there are many soon-to-be mothers who cannot kick the disease of drug addiction. And this means that their unborn children are exposed to use while in the womb. This can have devastating consequences of the developing child. Even so, opioid-addicted mothers have just as hard of a time quitting as those who aren’t pregnant – no matter how bad they want to.

Shockingly, opioids are increasingly being prescribed to pregnant women to treat pain without concern for the health of the developing fetus. So, a new study sought to determine just how much their unborn children could be affected. The research comes out of the University of Missouri (MU), and the team reveals that prenatal opioid exposure could “trigger long-term neurological or behavioral effects later in a child’s life.”

Opioids Affect the Brains, Behavior of Unborn Babies
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“These findings highlight the potential long-term health effects for the offspring, not just when they are born, but well into adulthood as well,” the authors wrote.

Cheryl Rosenfeld, a professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine, and co-author Trupti Joshi, an assistant professor in the MU School of Medicine, compared the gut microbiome of adult mice who exposed during in utero to oxycodone (a commonly abused opioid drug) with the gut microbiome of mice who were not exposed to drug use. OxyContin, its brand name, is the drug that caused the drug maker giant Purdue Pharma to go bankrupt.

“The key is the opioid’s impact on the developing fetus’ gut microbiome – a collection of bacteria and other microorganisms that naturally live inside the guts of all humans and animals and can serve as a barometer for overall health and wellness,” the team wrote.

The researchers collected fecal matter samples from the mice in both groups at 120 days of age and found significant changes in the natural balance of gut bacteria in those mice who were exposed to oxycodone. These changes were linked with variations in metabolic pathways, which impact metabolism and could, in the long-term, affect neurological and behavioral health. This is very telling for human mothers who are addicted, because, as Rosenfield noted, the gut bacteria of mice is very similar to that of humans and the results to the unborn offspring would also be very similar.

“While this research can lead to human studies down the road, those can take 20 to 30 years due to the much longer lifespan of humans compared to mice,” Rosenfeld said. “The opioid epidemic, one of the biggest public health crises facing the United States, is causing real harm right now, so our goal is to raise immediate awareness and hopefully protect the health and well-being of women who are currently pregnant or seeking to become pregnant and their offspring from the potential negative and longstanding effects of opioids.”


Prenatal opioid exposure may cause long-term neurological or behavioral effects later in a child’s life

Long-Term Effects of Developmental Exposure to Oxycodone on Gut Microbiota and Relationship to Adult Behaviors and Metabolism

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