Date of Degree

9-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Psychology

Advisor

Yoko Nomura

Committee Members

Sarah O'Neill

Carolyn Pytte

Joan Borod

Veronica Hinton

Subject Categories

Other Psychiatry and Psychology

Keywords

Prenatal, Cannabis, HPA axis

Abstract

While cannabis may be used by women during pregnancy, its effects on their offsprings’ developing stress response system are still largely unknown. The binding sites for the active chemicals in cannabis are operational at early time points in fetal development and are expressed in key limbic brain structures. The body’s natural endocannabinoid system serves as an important regulator of the stress response. Longitudinal studies have associated prenatal exposure with increased fearfulness and mood disturbances in offspring, but, despite the growing evidence of emotional dysfunction, there remains a critical gap in knowledge explaining how early prenatal exposure may lead to future affective pathology.

The purpose of the current study was to attempt to fill in this gap by investigating deviations in stress-related hormone concentrations at early developmental time points. Infants prenatally exposed to cannabis demonstrated significantly higher concentrations of cortisol F (1, 176) = 11.82, p < .001; n2 = .06, and these results remained largely unchanged when covarying for biological and sociodemographic factors. Cannabis-exposed infants demonstrated significantly higher concentrations of dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) as well, F (1, 223) = 6.07, p = .02, n2 = .02, and this finding remained significant when adjusting for biological factors but not maternal sociodemographic variables. Maternal anxiety, birthweight, and other prenatal substance exposures significantly interacted with prenatal cannabis exposure to produce higher concentrations of stress hormones. Lastly, higher levels of biological stress hormones were significantly associated with higher levels of reported anxiety but only within the prenatal cannabis exposed group. Cortisol and DHEA are both hormones that play an important role in the regulation of the stress response system. This study reports hormone alterations in substance-exposed offspring that may underlie limbic dysfunction in infancy and beyond.

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