ECHO Researchers Identify Gaps in Prenatal Opioid Exposure Research

Elisabeth Conradt, PhD

This week, Pediatrics published results from ECHO researcher Elisabeth Conradt and her team’s efforts to learn more about prenatal opioid exposure and its effects on child development. Conradt and her team reviewed 52 publications to summarize what is known and make suggestions on how to expand knowledge in this area. The resulting article includes perspectives on how the ECHO Program can help learn more about this important topic.

“The number one question mothers, fathers, and clinicians have when they see that a mother is using opioids while pregnant is ‘how will this opioid exposure affect the child’s health?’ We cannot answer that question right now with the existing data,” Conradt said.

The team analyzed existing publications on three age groups: birth, infancy, and 2 years and older. Because of inconsistent and limited data, Condradt’s team was not able to understand a connection between prenatal opioid exposure and how children’s minds develop throughout life. However, they predict that the effects of the exposure at birth and infancy are small and subtle, but may increase as children age and have more demands on their attention at home and school.

Current studies were limited because of small sample sizes and difficulty controlling for confounding factors such as where a person lives or how much money their family makes.

Moving forward, the team will use ECHO data to test how prenatal opioid exposure affects learning, understanding, behavior, and attention span in middle childhood. They will also consider other possible factors such as poverty. Conradt noted that the team will also look at whether newborns who have neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) have worse effects compared with newborns exposed to opioids who do not have NAS/NOWS.

Read the study summary and full media release.