Prenatal Exposure to Tobacco May Impair Adolescent Executive Functions

A new study shows that prenatal tobacco exposure has negative effects that can last well into a child’s future.

While the negative short-term effects of smoking while pregnant are well-known, such as preterm birth, low birth weight, and behavioral issues, the new study shows that exposure to as few as 10 cigarettes was associated with negative impacts on the executive function of adolescents who were exposed prenatally.

Executive functioning includes a higher level of cognitive organization and management processes that are important for success both in school and in daily life. These skills are learned throughout childhood and include how to self-manage behavior and how best to organize and act on information, researchers from Boston Medical Center explained.

Published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the study is the first to look at the long-term impact on students in a high school setting, according to the researchers. They add the study demonstrates the importance of providing more smoking cessation programs to women of childbearing age and pregnant women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking during pregnancy is common in the U.S., with as many as eight percent of women having smoked at some point during pregnancy.

For the study, teachers filled out a Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning-Teacher Form (BRIEF-TF) once a year for the sample of students involved in the study. The teachers were not aware of the study aims, but were knowledgeable about the students, the researchers noted. Teachers filled out at least one BRIEF-TF for 131 students.

The students involved were 51 percent male and 89 percent African American and went to school in an urban community.

The researchers said they controlled for demographics, substance exposures other than tobacco, early childhood exposure to lead, and exposure to violence.

The study’s findings show that only tobacco was associated with less optimal executive functioning in the classroom for the students, particularly impacting their ability to regulate their behavior.

“Because tobacco is one of the most common substances used during pregnancy — and it’s legal for adults to use — these results indicate the tremendous importance of bolstering efforts to ensure that women of child-bearing age and pregnant women have increased access to evidence-based tobacco smoking cessation programs,” said Ruth Rose-Jacobs, Sc.D., M.S., from Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, who served as the study’s first author.

“Given that as few as 10 cigarettes can have a negative impact, it is imperative that we act on this and provide as much access and education as we can to help prevent these negative outcomes.”

Source: Boston Medical Center