According to researchers, maternal meth use could alter how the body reacts to stress with a blunted cortisol response. Cortisol, or stress hormone, is released in times of anxiety, but toddlers born to mothers who used methamphetamines during pregnancy may not release cortisol normally, therefore stunting the stress response. Abnormal cortisol response may be associated with behavioral problems and increased risk of asthma.
The study included about 125 two-year olds. The toddlers played in a room with mom for a short period. A researcher sat in on the play time. Then, the researcher and mom left the room for two minutes. Abandonment is an extremely stressful situation for normal two year olds so cortisol levels should have risen dramatically. In 68% of the toddlers, cortisol response was suppressed.
Researchers found a connection between the amount of meth consumed during pregnancy and the reduction in cortisol response, but they also found a connection they didn’t suspect. Toddlers exposed to meth in-utero, but currently living in a healthy, stable home environment were less likely to be affected. Stressful living conditions increased the likelihood of blunted cortisol response.
The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, claims children born to mothers who consumed meth during pregnancy do not all suffer impaired cortisol response. If the home environment is healthy the cortisol response is more likely to be healthy as well. Therefore, a combination of meth exposure in-utero and stressful home environment after birth leads to the greatest impact on cortisol response.
Previous studies have shown lowered cortisol response in older children. It is hard to link cortisol response in older children to maternal habits due to the possibility of other risk factors contributing to the response. The response in toddlers offers researchers the maternal connection needed to associate meth consumption with cortisol response.
Source: Kirlic, N., Newman, E., LaGasse, L. L., Derauf, C., Shah, R. Smith, L. M., Arria, A. M., Huestis, M. A., Haning, W., Strauss, A., Dellagrotta, S., Dansereau, L. M., Abar, B., Neal, C. R., & Lester, B. M. Cortisol reactivity in two-year-old children prenatally exposed to methamphetamine. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 74(3), 447, 2013.