The smallest victims of the opioid crisis are at greater risk for developmental delays, a new study shows. According to a study released by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, newborns undergoing treatment for opioid addiction may have a higher risk for delays in speech, cognitive, and motor skill ability.
The study analyzed the neurodevelopment of 87 children undergoing treatment at the Cincinnati Children’s Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome Clinic. Each of the children was two years old at the time of the study.
The children’s mothers were suffering from opioid addiction at the time of their pregnancy. Opioids alter the chemistry of the brain by binding to the nervous system’s dopamine receptors. As a result, the body’s natural reward system is negatively impacted.
Addiction has become a growing epidemic in the United States. Over 64,000 Americans died in 2016 due to an overdose.
Additionally, as many as 20,000 of those deaths were related to fentanyl, an opiate with 100 times the potency of morphine and extremely toxic. In fact, compared to the 3 billion tons of hazardous materials shipped annually, just 100 pounds of fentanyl would be enough to poison all of New York City and New Jersey.
Opiates’ effects on the adult brain are expected to be mirrored in infants similarly exposed to opiates. However, in-depth studies on newborns receiving treatment for opioid addiction have been rarely conducted.
“These children are at risk for developmental delay,” said lead author Dr. Stephanie Merhar. They’re also at an increased risk for crossed eyes, or strabismus.
The children in the study were tested based on the Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development. During the study, the toddlers were found to have lower scores than the national average.
However, Merhar said that it’s unclear whether or not the toddlers’ academic performance would be affected later on as they age. And although the children’s scores were low, they still fell within “normal” range in their intellectual scores.
What’s more, the study indicates that some of the lower scores among the children had less to do with their exposure to opioids and more to the lack of access to academic support due to socioeconomic problems. For instance, the two-year-olds in the study living with adoptive families received higher cognitive scores on their tests.
These differences aren’t new. Previous studies have found that children raised in middle to upper-class homes were exposed to 1,500 more spoken words an hour than those raised in working-class homes.
Additionally, while 95% of babies will often suck their thumb out of reflex, children who continue to suck their thumb over the age of two may also experience delayed speech development.
Still, despite these factors, Merhar says infants who have been exposed to opioids while in utero should still be monitored closely. Early medical intervention may assist them in their speech, cognitive, and motor skill development.