The rise in opioid use, addiction, and overdose is a serious public health matter. Almost 850,000 people have died of drug overdoses in the last two decades, with almost 70% of these deaths attributed to opioids (such as Oxycontin and Vicodin).
In particular, opioid use and addiction can pose serious risks to pregnant women and their unborn babies. Opioid use can affect brain development in a fetus, which can cause serious behavioral and mental issues later down the road. It can also lead to neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), which essentially means that a baby can experience withdrawal symptoms after birth and being removed from exposure to opioid drugs.
Usually, medications like buprenorphine and methadone are used to treat people with opioid use disorders and help reduce addictive behaviors. However, there has been little research examining the impacts of these drugs on the unborn child, so it’s unclear whether these medications can be used to treat addicted women during pregnancy.
A new paper published in JNeurosci attempts to fill this gap.
Specifically, researchers wanted to understand how these drugs impacted fetal brain development. To do so, researchers used special MRI imaging to compare the brains of 109 infants exposed to opioids. Some of the infants’ mothers received buprenorphine or methadone, or both, while others received no medication.
The MRI imaging (called advanced resting-state functional MRI) allowed researchers to look at brain communication and how the different parts of the brain spoke to each other in a noninvasive way.
Their findings provide evidence that treating pregnant women with opioid addictions is safe and could be very beneficial for the babies they are carrying. Specifically, researchers found that infants who did not receive medication had significant changes to the reward processing areas of the brain. Infant brains that were exposed to one or both medications made significant changes towards more normal brain structure and function.