The Nature Medicine Journal has published a study that suggests that children are at a 50% greater risk of developing autism if their mothers use cannabis during pregnancy.
A recent Canadian study published in the journal Nature Medicine suggests that cannabis use during pregnancy may contribute to a 50% greater risk of the child developing autism.
The legalisation of cannabis in Canada has led the study's co-authors to raise concerns on the safety of using cannabis during pregnancy and its effects of foetal development.
Epidemiologist and co-author of the study, Dr. Daniel Corsi, commented that the results indicate the need to rethink using cannabis during pregnancy. "The universal recommendation is no alcohol use in pregnancy and I think a similar recommendation should be made for no cannabis use in pregnancy," says Dr. Corsi.
While the results are somewhat disturbing, they reflect a need for heightened awareness of the personal risk factors of cannabis use. This is important considering the national legalisation of the plant.
The effect of cannabis use on foetal development is an ongoing concern for researchers. From what we know from animal studies, cannabis can impact foetal development. There is, however, not enough clinical evidence to determine the safety parameters of cannabis use during pregnancy.
Cannabis has a unique effect on everyone. Its effect is dictated by environmental, psychological, genetic, and neurological factors. There is a small percentage of the population that are more susceptible to harmful factors associated through cannabis use. This includes the likelihood of developing addiction and risks associated with the onset of schizophrenia.
So, what did the study do and does cannabis actually cause autism?
A population-based retrospective cohort study was conducted. This means that researchers looked back on potential risk factors on a pre-determined outcome. Essentially, they documented births with the purpose to track if cannabis (risk factor) affected foetal neurological development (pre-determined outcome).
Between 2007 and 2012, 508,025 births in Ontario were documented by researchers. Information regarding cannabis use was taken from the Canadian birth registry (BORN). Children with autism were recorded from 18 months. Follow ups were conducted up until 2017.
During prenatal check ups, expectant mothers were asked to check "yes" or "no" to using cannabis. Overall, just over 3000 admitted to using cannabis at some point in their pregnancy.
According to the study, children were 1.5 times likely to develop autism if their mother engaged in cannabis use during the pregnancy. Overall, researchers concluded that there is "an association between maternal cannabis use in pregnancy and the incidence of autism spectrum disorder in the offspring."
Does Cannabis Cause Autism?
Although the study offers some pretty startling results, there is not enough evidence to suggest that cannabis is a direct cause of autism. Furthermore, the study has a few limitations that needs to be considered.
Firstly, self-reporting risks bias and is not a reliable source of data. There is a further risk of under-reporting or giving false information. This may be the case in those who want to avoid potential involvement of child-protective services or negative judgement.
Secondly, the data that was given from BORN did not indicate the frequency, trimester, or duration of cannabis use. Therefore, making it impossible to know the severity of cannabis use or whether or not frequency decreased throughout the pregnancy. This also questions what forms of administration were used and dosage levels of use.
Thirdly, the percentage of reported cannabis users was relatively small in comparison to the overall population. This can question the statistical significance of the result.
Is Cannabis Use Safe During Pregnancy?
There is currently no known direct cause of autism. Instead, its development seems to be dependent on several risk factors.
First and foremost, autism generally runs in families. There are isolated genes that carry more risk than others and high-functioning tendencies can be carried through the generations. Furthermore, sometimes genetic changes can occur in-utero that also increase the chance of developing autism.
Secondly, in addition to those who are genetically vulnerable to the disorder, there are a number of environmental factors that can contribute to its development. Complications during pregnancy or birth, advanced age of the parents, and the multiple pregnancies spaced one year apart are some examples.
Swedish statistician and epidemiologist, Sven Sandin says that despite the validity of the study, there are other risk factors that could explain the results.
"…Autism is highly heritable. Could it therefore be that they transfer the risk to their children…just through passing on their genes?"Sven Sandin – Karolinska Institute
More research is needed to focus on the parameters of cannabis use. When this occurs, then a more formative conclusion can be reached. In the meantime, it's important that citizens are educated on the risks of cannabis use during pregnancy.
Cannabis use in pregnancy should always be done with care and caution. There are potential risk factors for those who have a genetic history of autism or a psychological vulnerability to cannabis. If you are pregnant and thinking of using cannabis then speak with your health care professional.
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