Q & A: Cocaine and Development

Linda Mayes, a professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology in the Yale Child Study Center, heads a laboratory researching the ways young children regulate their emotions, especially when placed under stressful or challenging conditions.

She conducts research on the impact of economic adversity on children’s developing inhibitory control systems, the impact of substance abuse on maternal behavior, the genetics related to addiction and maternal behavior and adolescent risk taking as it relates to use of drugs. In a recently published paper, Mayes and her research team found that adolescents who were exposed to cocaine during development had smaller volumes of gray matter in brain regions involved in attention, memory and executive functions.

Mayes spoke with the News on Monday to discuss her experience working in the Child Study Center, her team’s recently published study documenting the effects of cocaine use during pregnancy, and her future research projects.

Q: When did you first begin your research on the effects of cocaine use during pregnancy and how has that research evolved?

A: We started this research over two decades ago, when cocaine use during pregnancy was much more common than it is now and [a much] greater public health concern, with regards to what would be the long-term developmental effects. We have continued to research that area ever since.

Q: Could you talk about some of the major takeaways that your research team has found in conducting this one particular study on prenatal cocaine exposure?

A: We should discuss it more broadly than this one particular study. This one particular study looks at the relationship between prenatal cocaine exposure and brain differences between exposed and non-exposed adolescents. The findings of the particular study are interesting, and they are very important, but there is a broader context in which to put this. Prenatal cocaine exposure is [often] just one event in the lives of these… infants and children, and now, adolescents. Drug use in a mother stands for many things going on in that person’s pregnancy besides the direct biological exposure. It stands for a very stressed pregnancy, poor prenatal care and poor nutrition. There are many things that particular drug exposure can convey to an infant or child that can be brain altering. During this particular study — we’re looking at one variable, prenatal cocaine exposure — but it does stand for a lot of different things.

Q: Could you discuss a few of the additional projects that you and your team are currently working on within your research on adolescent development?

A: There are several, only one of which is the paper that emerged based on the effects of doing cocaine during pregnancy. But we have been following those young children, some of whom are adolescents and young adults now, for quite some time. I should stress that not all of the families participating in the study were prenatal drug using. That’s part of the design of the study, but we have been following these children extensively, looking at brain development, aspects of stress reactivity, stress responsiveness, cognitive development and overall academic achievement.

Q: Throughout the course of your research, how many participants have you analyzed? What has your participant pool looked like?

A: The number of subjects that we have been following includes over 350. When you’re performing brain scans or neuroimaging studies it takes some time, so a lot of our papers will not report on that whole cohort because some of them are just now engaging in their imaging studies. The number represented in the particular paper on the effects of cocaine use is a small percentage of those who we are following and continue to be engaged with. There are people who have been participating in the study for as long as they have been alive.

Q: What are some of the key points you would like readers to take away with regards to your research?

A: It’s critical to realize that these families participating are not all drug users, nor have all are all these children participating [been exposed to drugs]. Furthermore, while the biological exposure is important, substance abuse is a complex issue for children and for families.