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Adolescents with prenatal cocaine exposure show subtle alterations in striatal surface morphology and frontal cortical volumes

Florence Roussotte12, Lindsay Soderberg2, Tamara Warner3, Katherine Narr4, Catherine Lebel12, Marylou Behnke3, Fonda Davis-Eyler3 and Elizabeth Sowell12*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Neurology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

2 Developmental Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory (DCNL), Department of Pediatrics, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

3 Department of Pediatrics, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

4 Laboratory of NeuroImaging, Department of Neurology, University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2012, 4:22  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-4-22

Published: 7 August 2012



Published structural neuroimaging studies of prenatal cocaine exposure (PCE) in humans have yielded somewhat inconsistent results, with several studies reporting no significant differences in brain structure between exposed subjects and controls. Here, we sought to clarify some of these discrepancies by applying methodologies that allow for the detection of subtle alterations in brain structure.


We applied surface-based anatomical modeling methods to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data to examine regional changes in the shape and volume of the caudate and putamen in adolescents with prenatal cocaine exposure (nā€‰=ā€‰40, including 28 exposed participants and 12 unexposed controls, age range 14 to 16 years). We also sought to determine whether changes in regional brain volumes in frontal and subcortical regions occurred in adolescents with PCE compared to control participants.


The overall volumes of the caudate and putamen did not significantly differ between PCE participants and controls. However, we found significant (P <0.05, uncorrected) effects of levels of prenatal exposure to cocaine on regional patterns of striatal morphology. Higher levels of prenatal cocaine exposure were associated with expansion of certain striatal subregions and with contraction in others. Volumetric analyses revealed no significant changes in the volume of any subcortical region of interest, but there were subtle group differences in the volumes of some frontal cortical regions, in particular reduced volumes of caudal middle frontal cortices and left lateral orbitofrontal cortex in exposed participants compared to controls.


Prenatal cocaine exposure may lead to subtle and regionally specific patterns of regional dysmorphology in the striatum and volumetric changes in the frontal lobes. The localized and bidirectional nature of effects may explain in part the contradictions in the existing literature.

Prenatal drug exposure; Cocaine; Striatum; Frontal lobes