New Imaging Techniques Track Cocaine’s Effect on Infant Brains

Researchers from NYU Tandon School of Engineering and University of North Carolina Chapel Hill have received a five-year, $3.2 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health to conduct a longitudinal study of the impact of prenatal cocaine exposure on infant brain development.

In 2014, the UNC research team published the first MRI studies of neonatal brain structure comparing infants exposed to cocaine in utero to infants exposed to drugs other than cocaine, as well as to infants with no drug exposure. Using novel MRI image segmentation and analysis techniques developed by Guido Gerig, professor and chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and a co-investigator, that team reported significant reductions in gray-matter volume and connectivity in the prefrontal cortical areas of cocaine-exposed infants. The greatest losses occurred in the frontal and prefrontal cortices — regions associated in adults with executive functioning, decision-making, and behavior control.   

Whether these differences are permanent or normalize over time remains unknown, due in part to the difficulties of analyzing longitudinal MRI images of infant brains. As the infant brain develops, changes in size and tissue properties can complicate analysis. Gerig, a member of NYU Tandon’s Visualization and Data Analytics Laboratory, has pioneered a four-dimensional infant image segmentation approach to creating a precise longitudinal model of brain development for each of the cocaine-exposed infants in the new study.

“We’ll look at how differences in brain growth and development in the first year of life correlate to some of the behavioral and attentional differences observed in babies exposed to cocaine,” said Gerig. Karen Grewen, professor of psychiatry at UNC and principal investigator, added: “We’re also hoping to understand what factors may boost resilience and promote brain growth in these children, which may help us develop therapeutic interventions at birth.”