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Tagged In:  Alcohol, Drugs, Substance Misuse

Mothers who smoke during pregnancy could be increasing the chance of their children turning to tobacco, alcohol and cannabis as adolescents, a new scientific study has found.

Researchers from King’s College London and the University of Bristol found that this link could be a result of DNA methylation, a process which regulates how genes are ‘switched on and off’. 

DNA changes caused by smoke inhalation in the womb

Their findings were based on almost 250 young people who have been studied from pregnancy to early adulthood, taking into account prenatal risks, DNA methylation and substance use in adolescence.

DNA methylation changes were found at birth in those who had been exposed to smoking in the womb, while these individuals began using substances earlier and at a higher level than their counterparts. The substances involved included alcohol, cannabis and tobacco.  

The changes in DNA methylation were located in a number of genes important for brain development. Amongst these is PACSIN1, which is active in those regions of the brain which have been connected to the risk of addiction. 

It was also found that substance use is impacted by genetic factors, thereby suggesting that it is partly inherited from one’s parents.  

Dr Charlotte Cecil from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London, said: “Together, our findings add to existing knowledge about the adverse effects of prenatal smoking on child health. 

“The study also lends new insights into the biological mechanisms through which tobacco smoking during pregnancy may increase risk for future substance use.”

Part of a bigger picture?

Substance abuse and addiction are incredibly complex though, as any substance misuse professional will be all too aware of. As such, Dr Edward Barker, also from the IoPPN at King’s, says “our findings are only part of a bigger picture that still needs to be fully mapped out. 

“For example, although we know that maternal smoking is a key risk factor for many adverse child outcomes, it is likely to work alongside a host of other risks.”

It’ll be interesting to see whether the findings will be replicated in larger studies, and if they are, whether researchers will be able to determine what role prenatal smoking plays in addiction. 
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