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Prenatal Methamphetamine Exposure

Excerpted from our review article for health care providers - Prenatal Alcohol and Drug Exposures in Adoption, originally published in Pediatric Clinics of North America - © 2005 Elsevier Inc. All Rights Reserved.


Methamphetamine abuse has increased dramatically in the United States in the past decade, especially in the western and midwestern states [105]. In Russia, cheap imported heroin still prevails, but abuse of home-produced ephedrine-based “vint” and other injectable amphetamines is on the rise and already predominates in certain cities, including Vladivostok and Pskov [106]. Methamphetamine abuse is a significant problem in Southeast Asia as well, with 19% of Thai female students using methamphetamine in one school-based study [107]. The UNODC reports large increases in methamphetamine production and abuse in China, Singapore, and Thailand [35]. Because methamphetamine is relatively cheap to manufacture from readily available products, “home labs” are becoming increasingly common in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, the chemicals and byproducts involved are highly toxic and flammable.

Methamphetamine is a CNS stimulant that releases large amounts of dopamine, resulting in a sense of euphoria, alertness, and confidence [108]. It can be injected, smoked, snorted, or ingested orally. Prolonged use at high levels results in dependence and erratic behavior [105]. Evidence on the effects of prenatal methamphetamine use is still emerging, but effects on prenatal growth, behavior, and cognition have been described.


Studies of adult methamphetamine abusers have shown potential neurotoxic effects on subcortical brain structures, namely, decreased dopamine transporters, brain metabolism, and perfusion [108]. Although the impact of methamphetamine use during human pregnancy is currently unknown, animal studies have demonstrated neurotoxic effects of amphetamines and remodeling of synaptic morphology in response to prenatal methamphetamine exposure [109]. One study did describe a smaller putamen, globus pallidus, and hippocampus in methamphetamine-exposed children [108].


Women using methamphetamine during pregnancy may have an increased rate of premature delivery and placental abruption [110]. Methamphetamine use during pregnancy is linked to fetal growth restriction and, occasionally, withdrawal symptoms requiring pharmacologic intervention at birth [111]. Clefting, cardiac anomalies, and fetal growth reduction have been described in infants exposed to amphetamines during pregnancy. These findings have been reproduced in animal studies [112].

Child Health

Late effects on child health resulting from prenatal methamphetamine use are unknown. Children who live at or visit methamphetamine home labs face acute health and safety hazards from fires, explosions, and toxic chemical exposures, however. The caregiving environments of methamphetamine users are often characterized by chaos, neglect and abuse, and criminal behavior as well as the presence of firearms, contaminated sharps, and other risks [113].

Behavior and Cognition

The scant research describing the outcomes of methamphetamine-exposed children describes possible links with aggressive behavior, peer problems, and hyperactivity [114], [115]. A small recent study found that methamphetamine-exposed children scored lower on measures of visual motor integration, attention, verbal memory, and long-term spatial memory [108]. In rats, even low doses of prenatal methamphetamine exposure can alter learning and memory in adulthood [116].

Selected References

[105]   Anglin M.D.,  Burke C.,  Perrochet B.,  History of the methamphetamine problem. J Psychoactive Drugs (2000) 32 : pp 137-141.
[106]   Rhodes T.,  Bobrik A.,  Bobkov E.,  HIV transmission and HIV prevention associated with injecting drug use in the Russian Federation. Int J Drug Policy (2004) 15 : pp 1-16.  
[107]   Sattah M.V.,  Supawitkul S.,  Dondero T.J.,  Prevalence of and risk factors for methamphetamine use in northern Thai youth: results of an audio-computer-assisted self-interviewing survey with urine testing. Addiction (2002) 97 : pp 801-808.
[108]   Chang L.,  Smith L.M.,  Lopresti C.,  Smaller subcortical volumes and cognitive deficits in children with prenatal methamphetamine exposure. Psychiatry Res (2004) 132 : pp 95-106.
[109]   Weissman A.D.,  Caldecott-Hazard S.,  Developmental neurotoxicity to methamphetamines. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol (1995) 22 : pp 372-374.
[110]   Eriksson M.,  Larsson G.,  Winbladh B.,  The influence of amphetamine addiction on pregnancy and the newborn infant. Acta Paediatrica Scandinavica (1978) 67 : pp 95-99.  
[111]   Smith L.,  Yonekura M.L.,  Wallace T.,  Effects of prenatal methamphetamine exposure on fetal growth and drug withdrawal symptoms in infants born at term. J Dev Behav Pediatr (2003) 24 : pp 17-23.
[112]   Plessinger M.A.,  Prenatal exposure to amphetamines. Risks and adverse outcomes in pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am (1998) 25 : pp 119-138.
[113]   Swetlow K.,  Children at clandestine methamphetamine labs: helping meth's youngest victims 2003. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime.  
[114]   Billing L.,  Eriksson M.,  Jonsson B.,  The influence of environmental factors on behavioural problems in 8-year-old children exposed to amphetamine during fetal life. Child Abuse Negl (1994) 18 : pp 3-9.
[115]   Eriksson M.,  Billing L.,  Steneroth G.,  Health and development of 8-year-old children whose mothers abused amphetamine during pregnancy. Acta Paediatr Scand (1989) 78 : pp 944-949.
[116]   Williams M.T.,  Moran M.S.,  Vorhees C.V.,  Behavioral and growth effects induced by low dose methamphetamine administration during the neonatal period in rats. Int J Dev Neurosci (2004) 22 : pp 273-283.