New York, NY (November 15, 2021) – Women who use cannabis during pregnancy, potentially to relieve stress and anxiety, may inadvertently predispose their children to stress susceptibility and anxiety, according to a study conducted by researchers from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the City University of New York published Monday, November 15, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS).
As legalization of recreational cannabis progresses across the world, many people mistakenly believe that cannabis use is without significant health risks. In line with this softening public opinion, cannabis has emerged as one of the most consumed recreational drugs of abuse during pregnancy, yet the impact of maternal cannabis use on fetal and childhood development is not clear.
“We know that cannabinoid signaling plays a role in modulating stress, which is why some people use cannabis to reduce anxiety and relax,” said Yoko Nomura, Professor of Psychology at CUNY Graduate Center and Queens College and first author of the paper. “But our study shows that in utero exposure to cannabis has the opposite effect on children, causing them to have increased levels of anxiety, aggression, and hyperactivity compared to other children who were not exposed to cannabis during pregnancy.”
For this study, researchers from Icahn Mount Sinai and CUNY examined placental gene expression and early childhood behavior and physiology in a long-term study of 322 mother-child pairs who were drawn from an ongoing New York City-based study of stress in pregnancy started in 2009. When the children were approximately six years old, hormone levels were measured via their hair samples, electrocardiogram recordings were used to measure heart function during a stress-inducing condition, and behavioral and emotional functioning was assessed based on surveys administered to the parents.
The children of mothers who used cannabis during pregnancy showed higher anxiety, aggression, hyperactivity, and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to children of non-cannabis users. Maternal cannabis use was also associated with a reduction in the high-frequency component of heart rate variability—the change in time interval between heart beats—which normally reflects increased stress sensitivity. In addition, RNA sequencing of placental tissue collected at the time of birth in a subset of participants revealed that maternal cannabis use was associated with lower expression of immune-activating genes, including pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are involved in protecting against pathogens. The cannabis-related suppression of several placental immune-gene networks predicted higher anxiety in the children.
“Pregnant women are being bombarded with misinformation that cannabis is of no risk, while the reality is that cannabis is more potent today than it was even a few years ago. Our findings indicate that using it during pregnancy can have long-term impact on children,” said Yasmin Hurd, PhD, the Ward-Coleman Chair of Translational Neuroscience, Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai, and senior author of the paper. “The study results underscore the need for nonbiased education and outreach to the public and particular vulnerable populations of pregnant women regarding the potential impact of cannabis use. Disseminating this data and accurate information is essential to improving the health of women and their children.”
This work was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and from the National Institutes of Drug Abuse.
About The Graduate Center of The City University of New York
The Graduate Center of The City University of New York (CUNY) is a leader in public graduate education devoted to enhancing the public good through pioneering research, serious learning, and reasoned debate. The Graduate Center offers ambitious students more than 40 doctoral and master’s programs of the highest caliber, taught by top faculty from throughout CUNY — the nation’s largest public urban university. Through its nearly 40 centers, institutes, and initiatives, including its Advanced Science Research Center (CUNY ASRC), the Graduate Center influences public policy and discourse and shapes innovation. The Graduate Center’s extensive public programs make it a home for culture and conversation.
The CUNY system has senior and junior colleges that serves for the community, including Queens College (QC) in the Queens borough of New York City.
About the Mount Sinai Health System
The Mount Sinai Health System is New York City's largest academic medical system, encompassing eight hospitals, a leading medical school, and a vast network of ambulatory practices throughout the greater New York region. We advance medicine and health through unrivaled education and translational research and discovery to deliver care that is the safest, highest-quality, most accessible and equitable, and the best value of any health system in the nation. The Health System includes approximately 7,300 primary and specialty care physicians; 13 free-standing joint-venture centers; more than 410 ambulatory practices throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island; and more than 30 affiliated community health centers. The Mount Sinai Hospital is ranked in U.S. News & World Report's "Honor Roll" of the top 20 U.S. hospitals and among the top in the nation by specialty: No. 1 in Geriatrics and top 20 in Cardiology/Heart Surgery, Diabetes/Endocrinology, Gastroenterology/GI Surgery, Neurology/Neurosurgery, Orthopedics, Pulmonology/Lung Surgery, Urology, and Rehabilitation. Mount Sinai Kravis Children's Hospital is ranked in U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Children’s Hospitals” among the country’s best in four out of 10 pediatric specialties. New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai is ranked among the Top 20 nationally for ophthalmology. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai is one of three medical schools that have earned distinction by multiple indicators: ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report's "Best Medical Schools," aligned with a U.S. News & World Report "Honor Roll" Hospital, and No. 14 in the nation for National Institutes of Health funding. Newsweek’s “The World’s Best Smart Hospitals” ranks The Mount Sinai Hospital as No. 1 in New York and top five globally, and Mount Sinai Morningside as top 20 globally, and “The World’s Best Specialized Hospitals” ranks Mount Sinai Heart as No. 1 in New York and No. 4 globally and the Division of Gastroenterology as No. 3 globally. For more information, visit https://www.mountsinai.org or find Mount Sinai on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Maternal cannabis use is associated with suppression of immune gene networks in placenta and increased anxiety phenotypes in offspring
Article Publication Date