According to a new study, antenatal exposure to opioids may alter the brain function of infants. Opioids affect the area of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. The results of this study will be represented in RSNA’s (Radiological Society of North America’s) annual meeting.
The use of opioids in pregnant women is one of the major public health crisis. Opioids can not only harm maternal health, but it can also affect the health of a fetus or infant.
Newborn babies may suffer from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) or drug withdrawal if they have an antenatal exposure to opioids. Such exposure has long-lasting effects on behavior and brain development.
According to the researchers, babies suffering from NAS need hospitalization and monitoring for a longer period. Besides, in some severe cases, there may be an additional need for treatment with opioids.
For early detection and management of NAS and improvement in behavioral and neurodevelopmental consequences in such children, it is important to understand how opioids affect brain development.
Rupa Radhakrishnan is an assistant professor in the department of radiology and imaging sciences at the IU School of Medicine in Indianapolis. According to her, there isn’t much information about the brain changes and their association with lasting neurological outcomes in children with antenatal exposure to opioids.
Various studies have observed how the continued use of opioids affects the brain of an adolescent or adult. But still, it isn’t certain whether environmental or social factors may affect these outcomes.
For understanding the opioids’ influence on the developing brain, it’s better to observe the brain activity of an infant immediately after birth. Moreover, it will also explain how opioid exposure can affect long-term outcomes by keeping in view the other environmental and social factors.
A team of imaging scientists, psychologists, neonatologists, and obstetricians have cooperated to analyze the brains of nearly sixteen infants via resting-state fMRI (functional MRI). The fMRI detects alterations in blood flow and hence allows the researchers to evaluate brain activity.
Whereas by using resting-state fMRI, one can observe the connectivity between neural regions while the brain is in resting state. Dr, Radhakrishnan along with his fellow researchers has analyzed the amygdala’s functional connectivity.
The amygdala is a brain’s area that perceives and regulates emotions like fear, sadness, anger, and aggression. Among the sixteen full-term infants included in the study, eight were prenatally exposed to opioids and the remaining were not.
Imaging techniques like anatomical MRI and fMRI were used in infants while they were asleep. The brain maps were created and the right and left amygdala were observed to check the amygdala’s participation in the resting state networks.
Between the infants exposed to opioids and those who were unexposed, notable differences were observed in the amygdala connectivity to different brain areas. But still, there’s a need for further research to find the clinical implication of this finding.
According to Dr. Radhakrishnan, though there were differences in the outcomes of these two groups, further investigation is essential to validate and investigate the outcomes in larger studies.
Moreover, it is vital to understand alterations in brain function that results from antenatal opioids exposure. It may help researchers in identifying the best methods for NAS management in infants and improve the long-lasting consequences.