Listen Up: Crying Newborns Reveal Mom’s Drug Use

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

All too often, the effects of prenatal drug exposure aren’t diagnosed until much later in the development process. However, a new study has uncovered a new method that would allow nervous system complications caused by prenatal cocaine exposure to be discovered during infancy. If proven successful, this breakthrough could be a game changer.

The Role of Hyphonation

Dr. Philip Sanford Zeskind, lead researcher at Levine Children’s Hospital at Carolina’s Medical Center North Carolina, led a team of researchers on this project at the University Of North Carolina School Of Medicine.

…hyphonation – a high-pitched characteristic contained within the sound of an infant crying – could be an indication of nervous system damage caused by prenatal cocaine exposure.

They found that hyphonation – a high-pitched characteristic contained within the sound of an infant crying – could be an indication of nervous system damage caused by prenatal cocaine exposure. Specifically, Zeskind found that the pitch of hyperphonation in infants exposed to cocaine during pregnancy was identical to that of rat pups that also had prenatal cocaine exposure.

“Studies of prenatal drug exposure in humans are always limited by not knowing if infant nervous system damage was due to the effects of a specific drug, such as cocaine, or the effects of other associated factors, such as maternal depression, poor prenatal care, and other drug use, that are often linked with maternal drug use during pregnancy,” said Zeskind.

“The discovery of the similar spectral characteristic in rat pup vocalizations will allow for translational analyses that can be used to detect the isolated effects of cocaine or similar drugs on brain limbic mechanisms common to humans, rodents, and other mammals.”

The Dangers of Prenatal Cocaine Exposure

For unborn babies, cocaine exposure is particularly damaging. That’s because the drug stays in the system of the fetus much longer than it stays in the system of the mother. This extended early exposure can lead to overall growth defects, brain damage and kidney problems. It also increases the chances that the baby will be born addicted and experience common cocaine withdrawal symptoms including tremors and muscle spasms.

Treatment vs. Jail

Most medical experts strongly push for drug treatment among pregnant women who are addicted to cocaine or other drugs, but Tennessee passed a law last May that sends pregnant women to jail for using drugs.

Despite a petition with over 10,000 signatures demanding the bill be vetoed, Gov. Bill Haslam marched forward. Haslam quickly signed the bill into law, allowing women to be charged with “assaultive offense or homicide” if a newborn is found to be impacted by the mother’s drug use during pregnancy.

Although the charges will be dropped if they enter an approved treatment program, major medical associations believe it will discourage drug-addicted pregnant women from seeking both prenatal care and help for their addiction.

Mallory Loyola, 26, was the first woman to be charged under this law when she and her infant tested positive for methamphetamine use in July.

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