HealthDay News — Prenatal methamphetamine exposure is linked to emotional and anxiety problems in 3-year-old children and an increased risk of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 5-year-old children, study data indicate.

“The ability to identify specific behavioral syndromes in children as early as preschool age could lead to the development of preventive intervention programs,” Linda L. LaGasse, PhD, of Brown University in Providence, R.I., and colleagues reported in Pediatrics.

At ages 3 and 5, children who had been exposed to methamphetamine in the womb had greater emotional reactivity (P=0.006) and higher levels of anxiety and depression (P=0.019) than their unexposed peers, the researchers found.

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They analyzed data from 330 children (166 exposed and 164 controls) who participated in the Infant Development, Environment and Lifestyle study, a prospective, longitudinal study of prenatal methamphetamine exposure and child outcome. Prenatal exposure was determined by maternal self-report and/or meconium results. Exposed and comparison groups were matched by race, birth weight, public health insurance and education; both groups had prenatal exposures to tobacco, alcohol or marijuana. Participants were assessed for behavior problems at ages 3 and 5 using the caregiver-reported Child Behavior Checklist administered by a study interviewer.

Heavy use of methamphetamine, defined as use at least three days a week during pregnancy, was associated with attention problems and withdrawn behavior at both ages. Prenatal methamphetamine exposure was not, however, associated with internalizing behavior or total behavioral problems.

“Despite adjustment for demographic factors, the population differences suggest that these effects on behavior problems are quite robust and may have substantial public health implications, because problems as noted on the Child Behavior Checklist tend to persist over time and predict later psychopathology and criminal behavior that place tremendous burdens on society,” the researchers wrote.

Funding was provided by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and in part by the National Center for Research Resources. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. The researchers reported no conflicts of interest.