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Researchers asked 96 British women about their substance-abuse history before and during pregnancy. The women were taking part in the University of East London Drugs and Infancy Study, which looks at recreational drug use among pregnant women. Most of the women reported taking a range of illegal drugs both before and during pregnancy.
Infant growth, motor control and brain development were assessed at birth and when babies were 4 months old.
Infants born to mothers who used ecstasy during pregnancy had worse motor control and poorer hand-eye coordination at 4 months than babies whose mothers didn't use the drug. Other problems among the ecstasy-exposed group included an impaired ability to balance their heads, sit up without support or roll from their back on to their side.
"The potential harmful effects of ecstasy exposure on prenatal and infant development have long been a concern," study author Lynn Singer, a professor of environmental health sciences, pediatrics and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, in Cleveland, said in a university news release.
"The drug's negative effects are particularly risky for pregnant women, who may use the drug without being aware of their condition," she added.
The study also found that ecstasy was associated with more male births, suggesting that the drug may impact "chemical signaling that determines a baby's gender."
The study, funded by the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, is published in the Feb. 28 issue of Neurotoxicology and Teratology.
The authors note that ecstasy (whose chemical name is "3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine" or MDMA) is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the world.
Ecstasy can deplete a user's levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is a key regulator of mood, sleep and anxiety, according to the researchers. Serotonin is important during early fetal brain development, so altering levels of the neurotransmitter may have a long-term impact on babies, researchers said.
The study authors will continue to track infants through their first 18 months of life.
While the study found an association between ecstasy use and negative impacts on fetal and infant development, it did not prove causation.
-- Alan Mozes
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