Smoking tobacco while pregnant may harm child brain development - study

Can smoking while pregnant harm your child's brain? According to this study, it could lead to significant brain development issues 10 years down the line.

Deep breaths: Smoking pollution in Tel Aviv (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PEXELS)
Deep breaths: Smoking pollution in Tel Aviv

Smoking tobacco while pregnant can lead to notable suboptimal brain development in children, a new study has revealed.

The study analyzed 2,704 children in the Netherlands to get a better picture of the effects of smoking during pregnancy on brain development.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal JAMA Network Open.

Background: Smoking and child growth

Tobacco use during pregnancy has been known to have significant health and development consequences. 

For starters, there are already the many negative health effects that repeated tobacco usage causes in general. Secondly, in the case of pregnancy, repeated tobacco smoking has been shown to have significant impacts on child growth. This is something already illustrated by prior studies.

Cigarettes and ashtray, illustrative (credit: PXFUEL)Cigarettes and ashtray, illustrative (credit: PXFUEL)

But what about childhood brain development? Can tobacco smoking while pregnant cause any issues in how a child's brain develops?

There has been an increasingly significant amount of evidence in recent years that seems to point in that direction. Some previous studies have indicated that the children of people who smoked tobacco while pregnant had impaired cognition and also had mental disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

Having said that, these studies were a bit suspect. This is because genetic factors and hereditary conditions could have played a role in this, putting any role smoking tobacco may have into question.

However, these studies have presented enough evidence to warrant further study.

Already, smoking while pregnant has been alleged to be linked to a number of issues in brain development. Further, tobacco exposure has been known to have played significant roles in DNA methylation alteration, and the exact biological systems involved in this aren't exactly fully understood.

But this study aimed to take a better look at how much maternal tobacco smoking may impact child brain development.

Smoking while pregnant

The researchers took a look at 2,704 children around 10 years of age where it could be determined if they had been born to people who smoked tobacco while pregnant. Most of these were born to parents who didn't smoke during pregnancy, with some who smoked only part of the way and others who continued to smoke throughout.

Here, they underwent scanning and brain imaging, with further efforts to take into account covariates and DNA methylation variance.

The ultimate findings showed that there were noticeable differences in brain development between the children of those who smoked tobacco during pregnancy and those who didn't. These include smaller gray matter and white matter volume; larger amygdala; smaller caudate; thicker cortices in the left hemisphere's inferior parietal region; smaller surface areas in the left hemisphere's temporal and occipital lobes; smaller surface areas in the right hemisphere's pericalcarine cortex; and less gyrification in the left hemisphere's postcentral region, among others.

To put it simply, people who continued to smoke tobacco during pregnancy had children who had smaller global and regional brain volumes. 

Overall, what all this means is that consistent tobacco smoking during pregnancy could lead to significant brain development issues 10 years down the line. This is something that doesn't seem to have a likely explanation from genetics or other hereditary factors.

In other words, interventions that would help stop prospective parents from smoking tobacco during pregnancy may be significantly beneficial to children.