University of Denver to study neurological effects of cannabis use during pregnancy

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Alcohol and pregnancy definitely don’t mix, but is it cool for expecting mothers to toke? Researchers at the University of Denver are trying to bring clarity to that question.

Pilyoung Kim, a psychology professor at the school, is leading a team that is studying the effects of cannabis on pregnant mothers and their babies

Kim said she was inspired to get to the bottom of the matter when she was working on a separate research project on poverty and pregnancy. While working on that study, Kim was confronted with a recurring question: “It’s OK to use cannabis while you’re pregnant, right?”

“We were baffled about what to say to these women,” Kim said in a press release. “There is a limited understanding of the effect of cannabis use on themselves and their babies if they are exposed to cannabis inside the womb.”

The research could potentially rupture another taboo over marijuana, which has been normalized (and legalized) throughout much of the United States. More than 30 states have legalized medical cannabis, and a growing number of cities and states are doing the same for recreational use. And marijuana has been marketed to pregnant women to help relieve morning sickness. A study last year on recommendations given to pregnant women at dispensaries in Colorado, one of the first states to legalize recreational pot, found that 69 percent offered the products as a remedy for morning sickness, and that 36 percent said marijuana is safe to use during pregnancy. 

Conversely, Kim’s research could lend support to the longstanding wisdom that expecting mothers should avoid marijuana. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that doctors should encourage pregnant women to discontinue marijuana use. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says plainly: “No amount of marijuana has been proven safe to use during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.” 

The Methods of the Study

Whatever the ultimate findings, Kim and her team are conducting the study by observing two groups of pregnant women: one that uses cannabis and one that doesn’t. From there, they’ll collect data during the pregnancy; after the baby is born, both the mother and child will undergo  an MRI to determine any impacts related to brain structure and function development.

“We feel there’s a little bit of a mission with this study, more so than some other research projects,” Kim said. “This is going to be really beneficial for moms in this situation. They are motivated to do their best for their baby, and they have a right to access all the right kind of information.”

Kim is one year into the study, which is being funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We are trying to do this research with an open mind, so the participants know that we would like to find scientific information that could be helpful to them one way or the other,” Kim said. “There’s a really important role science can play here. It’s to really inform the public so they are empowered to make a decision for themselves.”

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