Environment International (Oct 2021)

Prenatal environmental tobacco smoke exposure alters children’s cognitive control circuitry: A preliminary study

  • Amy E. Margolis,
  • David Pagliaccio,
  • Bruce Ramphal,
  • Sarah Banker,
  • Lauren Thomas,
  • Morgan Robinson,
  • Masato Honda,
  • Tamara Sussman,
  • Jonathan Posner,
  • Kurunthachalam Kannan,
  • Julie Herbstman,
  • Virginia Rauh,
  • Rachel Marsh

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 155
p. 106516


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Background and Objectives: Prenatal exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) is associated with increased attention problems in children, however, the effects of such exposure on children’s brain structure and function have not been studied. Herein, we probed effects of prenatal ETS on children’s cognitive control circuitry and behavior. Methods: Forty-one children (7–9 years) recruited from a prospective longitudinal birth cohort of non-smoking mothers completed structural and task-functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate effects of maternal ETS exposure, measured by maternal prenatal urinary cotinine. Attention problems and externalizing behaviors were measured by parent report on the Child Behavior Checklist. Results: Compared to non-exposed children, exposed children had smaller left and right thalamic and inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) volumes, with large effect sizes (p-FDR < .05, Cohen’s D range from 0.79 to 1.07), and increased activation in IFG during the resolution of cognitive conflict measured with the Simon Spatial Incompatibility Task (38 voxels; peak t(25) = 5.25, p-FWE = .005). Reduced thalamic volume was associated with increased IFG activation and attention problems, reflecting poor cognitive control. Mediation analyses showed a trend toward left thalamic volume mediating the association between exposure and attention problems (p = .05). Conclusions: Our findings suggest that maternal ETS exposure during pregnancy has deleterious effects on the structure and function of cognitive control circuitry which in turn affects attentional capacity in school-age children. These findings are consistent with prior findings documenting the effects of active maternal smoking on chidlren’s neurodevleoment, pointing to the neurotixicity of nicotine regardless of exposure pathway.