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Cocaine doesn't cause brain damage, studies find; poverty does

Published: Friday, May 2 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

After 25 years of study, new research shows that babies exposed to cocaine in utero, or "crack babies," suffer no long-term effects. But poverty and harsh punishments for mothers continue to affect families.

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Dr. Hallam Hurt began a study for babies exposed to cocaine in utero, or "crack babies" as they became known in the press, in the late 1980s. She enlisted 224 near-term mothers — half of whom used cocaine during pregnancy and half who did not. Almost all came from low-income families.

After the babies were born, they were evaluated every six to 12 months until they were young adults. The study received almost $8 million in federal funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and became one of the largest and longest-running studies on children exposed to cocaine in utero.

Now, 25 years later, the study is ending and the results are in: The researchers consistently found no significant differences between the cocaine-exposed children and the controls. So-called "crack babies" did not suffer long-term effects.

This might come as a shock to the public, says Claire Coles, a psychologist specializing in fetal damage at Emory University Medical School, but it's something that people in the field have known for a long time.

"It's sorry that the 'coke babies' myth continues to persist in 2014," says Coles. She and other experts have long known that children exposed to cocaine in the womb "perform cognitively the same as other children."

Still, Hurt found that children in both the control and test groups had lower-than-expected IQs. This has led her and other experts to believe that cocaine doesn't cause developmental delays — but poverty can.

Effects of poverty

Lots of things affect development — a parent's warmth and affection, hunger, stress and trauma. Hurt's research tried to extract these environmental factors, and found that children raised in a nurturing home were better off. But among the children studied who had all been exposed to cocaine in the womb, 81 percent had seen an arrest, 35 percent had seen someone get shot, and 19 percent had seen a dead body, all before the age of 7.

As the children grew up, researchers kept up with 110 of them: two had been killed, three were in prison, six had graduated from college, and six more were in school.

Years of research led Hurt to the conclusion that problems and lack of opportunity arising from socio-economic status might be the biggest threat. "Poverty is a more powerful influence on the outcome of inner-city children than gestational exposure to cocaine," Hurt said in a presentation of her research.

Coles, who did her own studies on children exposed to cocaine in Atlanta, agrees that the grating effects of poverty are what should be studied more carefully. "It's environmental deprivation, not having nutrition, health care, not having a parent who can pay attention or support you," she said.

"If you are born poor in this country, you can end up with an IQ that is 15 to 20 points lower," she says. Indeed, in Hurt's research, IQ for exposed children and unexposed children was about the same — 79 and 81 respectively. Both of these groups fell below the average of 90 to 109 for other kids in their age group.

Criminalizing mom

If poverty has harsher effects than cocaine, and if cocaine exposure has very little long-term effect on children, why are the ideas of the "crack baby" and "crack mom" so pervasive?

"Once something gets into the mythology of a culture, it becomes an archetype," says Coles. We think of the crack mom as someone who is "different, alien, a bad person," she says, who can serve as a scapegoat. She notes that fetal alcohol syndrome causes much more brain damage, but drinking is more culturally acceptable.

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