USask Launches First Ever Study of Cannabis Effects on Developing Babies

By: ASHLEY HOPKINS

On Monday, November 9th, the University of Saskatchewan (USask) in canada launched the first study of the effects that smoking marijuana while pregnant has on developing babies. Pharmacologist Robert Laprairie was one of 20 other pharmacologists selected to receive a $100,000 grant as part of Brain Canada’s Future Leaders in Canadian Brain Research Program.  

“Following on Canada’s legalization of cannabis in 2018, there is merited concern that people might seek out cannabis either for medicinal or recreational use during pregnancy. While some people believe cannabis can help reduce nausea during pregnancy, there’s a general misconception among the public that because it’s natural, it’s safe. But it’s a drug just like any other drug,” said Laprairie in a statement. 

USak neuroscientist John Howland and PhD students Ayat Zagzoog and Tallan Black will be assisting Laprairie in running a model with rats to test the hypothesis that chronic exposure to cannabis with high tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) content will result in an increase in the rat pups’ anxiety and significant reduction in both cognition and sociability.

Studies show that in humans, babies exposed to cannabis weighed less and had shorter feet than babies that were not exposed, although there are very limited studies of human babies. The studies done on rats show that rat pups injected with cannabinoids have learning deficits, increased anxiety, and changes within their metabolisms. 

According to Laprairie, rats are a good test subject because they have very close similarities to humans. “Their brains go through many of the same developmental processes, and their metabolism of the drug and how their bodies physically respond to the drug are on the order of 95 per cent homologous with our human endocannabinoid system,” he said.

A special inhalation tube will be used to expose THC and cannabinoid smoke to pregnant rats for 21 days. After the pups are born, the researchers will track their development through things such as weight and metabolic function. After the pups become a little older, they’ll begin to be monitored for anxiety-like behaviors, learning and memory tasks, and predisposition to substance abuse disorders. 

“What we as a team are hoping for is that individuals, policymakers, Health Canada, and health regions will take note of the data we’ve published and integrate it into their policy to recognize and caution people about avoiding cannabis during pregnancy. We’re developing many different cannabis-based medicines. And one of the most important things about a medicine is that you know which populations it shouldn’t be used in,¨ said Laprairie. The USask team hopes to have their manuscript ready to be submitted to high impact journals by summer of 2021. 

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