"Early kinds of natal insults can cause reprogramming of brain circuitry," Lester explained. He has led studies of the long-term effects of cocaine and amphetamine use during pregnancy. Many women who take such drugs also smoke, Lester added.
"When we isolated tobacco effects, we showed that there are inborn neural effects of tobacco exposure similar to what we see in cocaine and methamphetamine abuse," he said.
Some research has connected such problems to overproduction of cortisol, a "stress hormone" that plays an important role in regulation of blood pressure and the immune system, Lester said. "Cortisol overexposure is one hypothesis," he said. "There is a lot of evidence showing that too much cortisol is damaging."
It is a reasonable hypothesis, Cohen said. Babies born preterm have problems with blood pressure that have been linked to overproduction of cortisol by the adrenal glands, he noted, "and there are some parallels between tobacco smoke exposure and preterm babies of the same age."
Whatever the mechanism of damage, treatment to eliminate the problems after birth does not seem possible, Cohen added.
"What we know from studies in older kids is that even if you remove them from an environment of exposure to tobacco smoke, it is unlikely you will get full restoration of normal function," he said. "The best intervention to solve these problems is prevention. Women who are pregnant need to avoid exposure to tobacco smoke in the air. Passive smoke exposure can be as bad as being an active smoker."
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