Photo of pregnant woman with one hand on stomach and the other holding ultrasound image

How does mothers’ cocaine use during pregnancy affect boys and girls differently?

With a focus on gender, new NIH-funded research continues two decades of study at Case Western Reserve University into effects of prenatal cocaine exposure

Teens whose mothers used cocaine during pregnancy are more likely to have aggression and attention problems—known predictors of later drug use and sexual risk-taking.

With a new three-year, $840,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers at Case Western Reserve University now hope to learn how and when these issues may develop differently in boys and girls—and how best to address behavioral problems caused directly and indirectly by in utero cocaine exposure.

Depending on what they learn, their research might also be tailored to other substances used during pregnancy.

Meeyoung Min
Meeyoung Min (photo by Steve Zorc)

“Our preliminary analyses indicated that some children show few negative effects from their mothers’ drug use—until 9, 10, 11 years old,” said Meeyoung O. Min, a research associate professor at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve.

“We can better understand how to prevent and treat children, specific to their gender, ages and stage of development, who may develop problem behaviors,” said Min, also a co-investigator on Project Newborn, an NIH-funded project that has collected data since 1994 on the same group of children exposed to cocaine in the womb.

Mining—and combiningtwo decades of data

The new study will merge data from Project Newborn and a similar, larger dataset—the Maternal Lifestyle Study—conducted by Brown University and partners from 1993 to 2011, to examine gender differences and similarities in the developmental trajectories of early behavioral problems and subsequent adolescent substance use and sexual risk behaviors.

Some initial indications suggest:

  • No gender differences when behavioral problems are either severe or non-existent. However, in teens with mild behavioral problems, boys and girls show differences in their risk behaviors.
  • A wide disparity in how mothers rate their parental monitoring compared to their boys’ perceptions of it; girls and mothers tend to report similar ratings of parental monitoring.
  • The need to better understand the role of life stressors, such as sexual victimization, lead exposure, violence, childhood maltreatment, mothers’ psychological distress, which may interact with prenatal drug exposure to escalate behavior problems.

The new grant is from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the NIH, which also provided Project Newborn the four-year, $2.5 million grant to report on the study group of cocaine-exposed children at age 21.

Case Western Reserve researchers supported by the new grant are: Sonia Minnes, an associate professor at the Mandel School; Lynn Singer, deputy provost and vice president of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve, as well as a professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, and population and quantitative health sciences at the university’s School of Medicine; and Jeffrey Albert, a professor of population and quantitative health sciences at the university’s medical school.

Partners on the grant include Ty Ridenour, a senior research scientist at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina, and Linda LaGasse, director of Research, Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island, Brown University.

For more information, contact Daniel Robison at

This article was originally published Jan. 3, 2018.