Critical new research has discovered that an essential micronutrient can help to protect unborn babies from damaging cannabis effects in the womb.
Many women who have access to medical cannabis use it to help with depression, anxiety and morning sickness during pregnancy. This can cause many problems for an undeveloped foetus however, as cannabis’ effects on unborn babies can prevent foetal brain development and cause early childhood behaviour problems, such as increased impulsivity and memory dysfunction.
The micronutrient: choline
The micronutrient that can protect the foetus from cannabis effects is called choline. This can be found in many foods such as broccoli, eggs, animal liver and oily fish, and is vital for health human functioning – affecting brain development, our nervous system, metabolism and liver function.
Results from the study, published in Psychological Medicine, showed maternal choline levels correlated with children improved duration of attention, cuddliness and bonding with parents.
Camille Hoffman, associate professor of maternal foetal medicine, University of Colorado School of Medicine, said: “In this study, we found that maternal cannabis use begins to negatively impact the foetal brain at an earlier stage in pregnancy than we expected.
“However, we also found that eating choline-rich foods or taking choline as a supplement may protect the child from potential harm.”
The study: a first of its kind
Led by the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus, the study is the first to detect central nervous system effects of cannabis in human newborns.
It identifies a vulnerable gestational period for cannabis effects on foetal brain development that is earlier than anticipated – as early as the end of the first trimester. Usually reporting in studies are retrospective and don’t look at the effects of cannabis ingestion at different trimesters.
Cannabis use was assessed during pregnancy from women who later brought their newborns for study. Mothers were informed about choline and other prenatal nutrients and advised to avoid alcohol, tobacco, cannabis and other drug use. Maternal serum choline was measured at 16 weeks gestation.
A total of 15% of 201 mothers in the study used cannabis both before and beyond 10 weeks gestation. Infants of mothers who continued to use cannabis beyond 10 weeks had decreased cerebral nervous system (brain) inhibition at one month of age. Decreased brain inhibition this early in development can relate to problems in attention and social function. Later in life, this can translate into a predisposition to conditions like substance abuse, depression and psychosis.
In addition, infants exposed to prenatal cannabis beyond 10 weeks gestation had lower “regulation” scores at three months of age. This can cause decreased reading readiness at age four, decreased conscientiousness and organisation as well as increased distractibility as far out as age nine.
These adverse effects in the infant were not seen if women had higher gestational choline in the early second trimester.
Overall, results showed maternal choline levels correlated with the children’s improved duration of attention, cuddliness and bonding with parents.
Hoffman said: “We already know that prenatal vitamins improve foetal and child development, but currently most prenatal vitamins do not include adequate amounts of the nutrient choline despite the overwhelming evidence of its benefits in protecting a baby’s brain health.
“We hope that this research is a step towards more OB-GYNs, midwives and other prenatal care providers encouraging pregnant women to include choline in their prenatal supplement regimen.”