18 May Effects of MDMA (Ecstasy) Use During Pregnancy
MDMA (Ecstasy) is a stimulant drug related to amphetamine that produces some of the mind-altering effects more commonly linked to the use of drugs called hallucinogens. When pregnant women use MDMA, it passes from the maternal bloodstream and enters the bloodstream of the developing fetus. Current evidence from both animal and human testing indicates that fetal exposure to MDMA can lead to a number of potential problems, including altered brain development in the first trimester of pregnancy, changes in newborn behavior related to this alteration, and delayed development of normal motor function (coordinated muscle movement) in the middle and latter stages of pregnancy.
The contents of an expectant mother’s bloodstream, including life-giving oxygen and other required nutrients, don’t pass directly into the bloodstream of a developing fetus. Instead, they pass through a network of fine-gauged blood vessels known as the placental barrier, which sits inside the placenta’s attachment point on the uterine wall. Once materials in the maternal bloodstream pass through this barrier, they enter the fetal bloodstream and travel on to the fetus itself through a pair of arteries situated inside the umbilical cord. A single vein inside the umbilical cord passes oxygen-depleted blood from the fetus to the placental barrier; this blood then takes on new oxygen supplies and transfers waste to the mother’s bloodstream. MDMA reaches the fetus by passing from the mother inside the placental barrier and entering the bloodstream flowing through the umbilical arteries.
Changes in Brain Development
According to a study published in 2003 in the journal Neurotoxicity and Teratology, the use of MDMA in the first trimester of pregnancy produces as much as a 500 percent increase in the number of cells called neurons inside the fetal brain; outside of the womb, these cells carry out the basic tasks required for coordinated brain function and the maintenance of normal consciousness. Although this increase may seem harmless on the surface, it actually interferes with a natural process that gradually reduces the number of neurons in the forming brain of a fetus and prepares the brain for later stages of growth and development.
The greatest impact of this excessive neuron growth occurs in the frontal cortex, a portion of the brain with responsibilities during childhood and adulthood that include helping control impulsive behavior, helping maintain focus and attention, and participating in higher-level planning. Excessive neuron growth also occurs in a portion of the brain called the striatum, which has responsibilities during childhood and adulthood that include controlling normal movement and regulating the links between pleasurable sensations and behaviors that support health and well-being.
After birth, newborns exposed to MDMA during the first third of pregnancy show a marked tendency toward unease and discomfort in new surroundings, the authors of the study in Neurotoxicity and Teratology report. Although other factors may play a role in any given case, this behavioral change may indicate the presence of learning deficits, a decrease in normal attention span relative to newborns not exposed to MDMA, hyperactivity, or unusually high levels of anxiety.
Changes in Motor Function
In 2012, researchers from Case Western Reserve University released the findings of a study that examined the effects of MDMA on the motor skills of a developing fetus. They concluded that, after roughly four months of pregnancy, fetuses exposed to the drug move more slowly inside the womb than fetuses not exposed to the drug. In addition, fetuses exposed to MDMA showed clear signs of a delay in overall motor function development when compared to fetuses not exposed to MDMA. The authors of the study also concluded that the negative effects of Ecstasy remain clear even when other sources of fetal harm—such as smoking and the use of other drugs or alcohol—are accounted for and filtered out. Women who take Ecstasy frequently and in relatively high doses have higher risks for triggering motor function-related problems in their developing babies than women who take the drug infrequently and in relatively low doses.
The study published in 2003 in Neurotoxicity and Teratology was conducted on rats in a controlled laboratory setting. The findings of this study likely apply to human beings, but there may be unknown differences in the brain-related effects of MDMA in rat fetuses and human fetuses. The 2012 study from Case Western Reserve University was conducted on humans, and represents the first such study to directly measure the harmful effects of MDMA in a human population. According to the authors of this study, use of MDMA during the early stages of pregnancy also increases the chances that any given mother will give birth to a boy. No one knows why this gender discrepancy occurs.
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