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Caffeine is a bioactive compound widely consumed in beverages, foods, and dietary supplements. Current guidelines recommend that women limit caffeine during pregnancy to 200 milligrams (roughly the amount in a 12-ounce serving) per day. Findings from a new study suggest that caffeine consumption during pregnancy alters neurodevelopment in the fetal brain.
During pregnancy, caffeine crosses the placenta and passes into the fetus and amniotic fluid. Maternal caffeine metabolism decreases during pregnancy, extending the half-life of the compound in the mother’s bloodstream to as much as 18 hours by the end of pregnancy. The placenta and fetus lack the necessary enzymes to metabolize caffeine, so fetal exposure is proportional to maternal intake.
The authors of the study analyzed structural MRI data from more than 9,100 children between the ages of nine and 10 years old who were enrolled in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. Of particular interest to the researchers were the brain’s white matter tracts – the organized bundles of axons that connect one part of the brain to another. They assessed the effects of caffeine exposure on cognitive measures (working memory, task efficiency) and psychopathology measures (externalization, internalization, somatization, and neurodevelopment).
They found that roughly half of the children were exposed to caffeine during their mothers' pregnancies. Those who were exposed to caffeine exhibited alterations in the microstructure of the inferior fronto-occipital fasciculus (an area of the brain associated with language processing and goal-oriented behavior) and the corticospinal tract of the left hemisphere (an area of the brain associated with motor activity). The children who were exposed to caffeine also exhibited worse outcomes in terms of psychopathology, but their cognitive function was unaffected.
These findings suggest that caffeine exposure during pregnancy leads to neurodevelopmental problems due to microstructural alterations in the brain.
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