Public Release: 

Grant awarded to study impact of pain medication exposure in the womb on developing brain

Scripps Research Institute


IMAGE: Courtney Miller, Ph.D., is an associate professor at The Scripps Research Institute, Florida campus. view more

Credit: Photo courtesy of The Scripps Research Institute.

JUPITER, FL, April 9, 2014 - Scientists from the Florida campus of The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have been awarded a $472,500 Cutting Edge Basic Research Award (CEBRA) by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health to study models of the brain development of newborns who have been exposed--and become addicted--to prescription pain medication while still in the womb.

Courtney Miller, a TSRI associate professor, is the principal investigator for the new two-year study.

"We don't really know the long-term effects of exposure to pain pills--how well will these babies function in adolescence and adulthood," Miller said. "Given the fact that there is one baby born every hour to mothers that abused pain pills during pregnancy--NICUs [neonatal intensive care units] are filled with infants going through withdrawal--we really need to understand the effects of this epidemic on mental function and brain wiring."

While previous research has suggested that such addiction at birth may lead to impulse control disorders such as ADHD, schizophrenia and addiction, little is known about the underlying biology of that chain of events.

Thanks to funding through CEBRA--designed to foster highly innovative research related to drug abuse and addiction and how to prevent and treat them--Miller and her colleagues, including TSRI Associate Professor Gavin Rumbaugh, will use rodent models to understand which areas of the brain are affected by this condition and how subtle changes in brain wiring might lead to later changes in behavior.

This research has special significance for Florida. At its peak, doctors in Florida prescribed 10 times more oxycodone pills than every other state in the country combined, and people traveled from all over the Southeast to visit the state's pain clinics because of their reputation as "pill mills," according to a 2011 report on National Public Radio. The state has since cracked down on the clinics and abuse has dropped off somewhat, but prescription drug abuse remains a serious public health threat.


The number of the new National Institutes of Health grant is 1R21DA036376.

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