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Taking opioids while pregnant may increase the chances that your baby will become a substance abuser later in life
Medical scientists in Boston say early exposure to opioids like methadone, heroin, Subutex and opioid prescription painkillers may lead to permanent genetic changes in some infants, and that these changes could increase babies’ sensitivity to addictive substances later in their lifetimes.
It’s already well known that using opioids while pregnant causes Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) – “cold turkey” withdrawal symptoms – in the newborn infant.
And it’s also well known that some infants have a much worse time of this horrible experience than others.
Scientists have theorized for some time that drug-related genetic changes in the mother or baby may explain why symptoms are more severe in some babies than in others. Now, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Boston Medical Center (BMC) have completed a study that appears to confirm the theory. But it also suggests an even more important theory – inherited genetic potential for addiction.
First of all, it’s known that in opioid users, changes occur to a specific gene called the mu-opioid receptor (OPRM1). Opioid receptors are the targets for opioids in the nervous system, and the OPRM1 gene is considered essential for opioid dependency in adults. The OPRM1 gene also plays an important role in dependence to other drugs of abuse, such as nicotine, cocaine and alcohol.
When opioids or alcohol hit the receptor, the receptor triggers the release of beta-endorphins, which in turn releases dopamine. This is the body’s “feel-good” reward system. The final result is more craving for the drug or alcohol, opening the door to dependence and addiction.
For the study, the researchers examined genetic data from 86 infants whose mothers had taken opioids while pregnant. As expected, some of the infants suffered far worse NAS withdrawal symptoms than the others. Their suffering not only was more intense, the babies also needed more medication than the others and their withdrawal lasted longer.
When the babies’ genetic information was compared, it was found that the infants who suffered severe NAS withdrawal symptoms had high levels of what’s called “DNA methylation” in their bodies. This told the researchers that the OPRM1 gene in those babies had been “silenced” or shut off – the typical effects of dependence. Such changes are also caused by external forces – called “epigenetic” changes – and they’re usually permanent.
What appears to be most interesting to the researchers is the distinct possibility that the change in the infant’s OPRM1 gene was inherited from the mother’s DNA at conception – she passed on the effects of her own opioid abuse to the baby, who was then born with the genetic mutation typical of an opioid, alcohol or cocaine addict.
“What makes these results so intriguing is that these epigenetic* changes could be passed on from mother to child, resulting in these children potentially having future issues and sensitivities around opioid and other addictive substances,” said Elisha Wachman, MD, a staff neonatologist at BMC and assistant professor of pediatrics at BUSM.
This is certainly food for thought for women who use and abuse addictive substances such as opioids. It’s bad enough to think you’ve caused your baby days of extreme discomfort. But it’s quite another thing to realize that your substance abuse might make your child more prone to substance abuse later in his or her life.
Here at Novus Medical Detox Center, we don’t treat pregnant women or babies. This is purely the job of expert neonatologists – specialist pediatricians who care for premature newborns or those with serious illness, including NAS.
What we try to do is to encourage women of child-bearing age to be extra careful to avoid pregnancy while they’re using or abusing any addictive substances. But even more important, we urge them to seek help to get and remain sober.
If you’re dependent or addicted to opioids and could possibly become pregnant, we ask that you make the all-important decision to get here to Novus for a medically supervised detox before you become pregnant. We are experts at providing safer, more comfortable opioid withdrawal for people who want to recover drug-free lives.
* processes by which inheritable modifications in gene function occur without a change in the sequence of the DNA
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