Research News

CRIA awarded grants to study effects of prenatal alcohol and drug use

Pregnant woman, one hand on belly, the other holds a glass of wine.

NIH grants awarded to CRIA researchers will investigate the effects of smoking and alcohol and marijuana use during pregnancy.


Published November 8, 2018

headshot of Roh-Yu Shen.
“Although we know FASDs are caused by drinking, we do not fully understand the exact neurological mechanisms that alter the brain. ”
Roh-Yu Shen , senior research scientist
Clinical Research Institute on Addictions

Scientists at UB’s Clinical Research Institute on Addictions (CRIA) recently received more than $4 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of drinking, smoking and marijuana use during pregnancy.

Roh-Yu Shen and Samir Haj-Dahmane each received five-year, $1.8 million grants from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (NIAAA) to study fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and how prenatal alcohol exposure affects the brain. Both Shen and Haj-Dahmane are senior research scientists at CRIA and in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

FASD is a group of conditions caused by alcohol use during pregnancy, and can include physical and neurological problems such as small size, attention disorders and learning disabilities.

Shen will investigate how prenatal alcohol use affects executive function, which refers to how the brain governs such skills as planning, organization, time management and problem-solving.

“Although we know FASDs are caused by drinking, we do not fully understand the exact neurological mechanisms that alter the brain,” Shen says. “In this study, we will investigate if prenatal alcohol exposure leads to immature neurodevelopment of the medial prefrontal cortex, a brain region controlling executive function, and how this contributes to executive function deficits.”

Shen and her team also will investigate if interventions after birth can help the medial prefrontal cortex mature, and therefore prevent or reverse executive function problems. These results could contribute to development of effective interventions for FASDs, which are the most preventable cause of development disorders in the U.S.

Samir Haj-Dahmane will explore the effects of prenatal drinking on psychiatric disorders associated with FASD.

“Not only do FASDs include developmental delays, but they also can include psychiatric disorders, including major anxiety disorder,” Haj-Dahmane says. “Dysfunction of the brain’s serotonin system is one of the major causes of psychiatric disorders associated with FASD, yet how prenatal ethanol exposure alters the serotonin system has remained a long-standing question in FASD research.”

Haj-Dahmane’s study seeks to understand the mechanisms and precise neuronal circuitries that are changed in the serotonin system due to prenatal alcohol exposure, which may lead to new therapies to help psychiatric disorders associated with FASD.

CRIA scientists Rina Das Eiden and Panayotis (Peter) K. Thanos are co-principal investigators on a two-year, $461,000 grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Eiden is a member of the Department of Psychology, College of Arts and Sciences, and Thanos is in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology.

The grant is for a translational study of tobacco and marijuana use during pregnancy, using both human and animal samples. The current funding is for a two-year human study that will have four groups of children who were prenatally exposed to tobacco and/or cannabis at various levels. After completion of the human study, funds will be released for an additional three years for an animal study. The animal study will include light and heavy exposure groups for tobacco or cannabis and combination of the two.

“Translational studies with human and animal models are essential for understanding not only the public health impact of co-occurring use, but also the biological mechanisms for such impact,” Thanos says.

The subjects will be examined for differences in body weight, behavior, attention, working memory, fetal growth, reaction to stress and inflammation.

“Nearly 30 percent of women who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy also report using marijuana,” says Eiden. “With many states moving toward legalizing marijuana, that number is likely to increase, so assessing the risks posed by prenatal use are more important than ever.”