UMD Researchers to Investigate Effects of Fetal Exposure to Opioids

University of Maryland researchers, including the SSW's Richman Professor for Children and Families Brenda Jones Harden, will conduct an unprecedented investigation into how fetal exposure to opioids affects children’s brain development and health outcomes as part of a sweeping National Institutes of Health initiative to apply scientific solutions to help reverse the nation’s opioid crisis.

Researchers led by Distinguished University Professor Nathan A. Fox, of the UMD College of Education, will examine how brain growth is affected by pre- and postnatal opioid exposure and how that causes cognitive and behavioral changes in childhood.

The University of Maryland’s award is one of 375 grant awards across 41 states made by the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2019 to apply scientific solutions to reverse the national opioid crisis through the Helping to End Addiction Long-term, or the NIH HEAL Initiative. The National Institute on Drug Abuse-funded study addresses an urgent public health need: the use of opioids by pregnant women and mothers has increased by 300% since the early 2000s, with the number of newborns with neonatal abstinence syndrome, caused by withdrawal from drugs they were exposed to in the womb, increasing by approximately 400%. In 2016, more than 31,000 babies were born with the syndrome, causing symptoms including tremors and sleep problems.

“We know very little about the effects of early exposure to opioids on brain development,” said Fox, of the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and a renowned expert in child development. “There has never been a national study of even normative brain development during the early years of life. Our research will help fill a gap in understanding of the basic science of early brain development, as well as identify the effects of early drug exposure on the brain, along with prevention strategies.”

The University of Maryland is part of a five-institution consortium that is laying the groundwork through this initial study for a large-scale national, 10-year longitudinal study that examines the effects of in utero exposure to opioids on children through the age of 8.



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