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    Original Investigation
    May 12, 2020

    Association Between Prenatal Exposure to Alcohol and Tobacco and Neonatal Brain Activity: Results From the Safe Passage Study

    Author Affiliations
    • 1Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, New York
    • 2Division of Developmental Neuroscience, New York State Psychiatric Institute, New York, New York
    • 3Department of Pediatrics, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, New York
    • 4Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Faculty of Medicine and Health Science, Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa
    • 5Center for Pediatric & Community Research, Avera Research Institute, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
    • 6Department of Pediatrics, University of South Dakota School of Medicine, Sioux Falls
    • 7Department of Pediatrics, University of North Dakota Medical School, Grand Forks
    JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(5):e204714. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.4714
    Key Points español 中文 (chinese)

    Question  Are prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) and prenatal tobacco exposure (PTE) associated with brain activity in newborns during natural sleep?

    Findings  In this cohort study of 1739 mother-newborn dyads, patterns of PAE and PTE were associated with neonatal electroencephalography power. PAE was associated with increased low-frequency brain activity at temporal electrode sites, whereas moderate or high continuous PTE was associated with decreased high-frequency brain activity at central electrode sites.

    Meaning  The findings suggest that any level of PAE or PTE is associated with newborn brain development, reaffirming the public health message that research has not yet determined a safe level of alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy.


    Importance  Research to date has not determined a safe level of alcohol or tobacco use during pregnancy. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a noninvasive measure of cortical function that has previously been used to examine effects of in utero exposures and associations with neurodevelopment.

    Objective  To examine the association of prenatal exposure to alcohol (PAE) and tobacco smoking (PTE) with brain activity in newborns.

    Design, Setting, and Participants  This prospective cohort study enrolled mother-newborn dyads from December 2011 through August 2015, with data analyzed from June 2018 through June 2019. Pregnant women were recruited from clinical sites in Cape Town, South Africa, and the Northern Plains region of the US. Participants were a subset of newborns enrolled in the Safe Passage Study. Exclusions included birth at less than 37 or more than 41 weeks’ gestation, multiple birth, or maternal use of psychiatric medication during pregnancy.

    Exposures  PAE and PTE groups were determined by cluster analysis.

    Main Outcomes and Measures  Analyses of covariance were run on EEG spectral power at 12 scalp locations across the frequency spectrum from 1 to 45 Hz in 3-Hz bins by sleep state.

    Results  The final sample consisted of 1739 newborns (median [interquartile range] gestational age at birth, 39.29 [1.57] weeks; 886 [50.9%] were female; median [interquartile range] newborn age at assessment, 48.53 [44.96] hours). Newborns whose mothers were in the low continuous (95% CI, −0.379 to −0.031; P < .05; 95% CI, −0.379 to −0.045; P < .05), quit (95% CI, −0.419 to −0.127; P < .001; 95% CI, −0.398 to −0.106; P < .005), and moderate or high continuous (95% CI, −0.430 to −0.124; P < .001; 95% CI, −0.420 to −0.119; P < .005) PAE clusters had increased 4- to 6-Hz and 7- to 9-Hz left-temporal EEG power. Newborns with moderate or high continuous PTE had decreased 19- to 21-Hz (95% CI, 0.034 to 0.327; P < .05) and 22- to 24-Hz (95% CI, 0.022 to 0.316; P < .05) right-central EEG compared with newborns with no PTE. Newborns with moderate or high continuous PTE had significantly decreased 22- to 36-Hz right-central EEG power compared with the quit smoking group (22-24 Hz, 95% CI, 0.001 to 0.579; P < .05; 25-27 Hz, 95% CI, 0.008 to 0.586; P < .05; 28-30 Hz, 95% CI, 0.028 to 0.607; P < .05; 31-33 Hz, 95% CI, 0.038 to 0.617; P < .05; 34-36 Hz, 95% CI, 0.057 to 0.636; P < .05).

    Conclusions and Relevance  These findings suggest that even low levels of PAE or PTE are associated with changes in offspring brain development.