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October 25, 2013
CONTACT: K.E. Schwab

SRU researchers investigate prenatal, postnatal drug use

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - When Jennifer Willford, assistant professor of psychology at Slippery Rock University, and her student researchers complete their study of how prenatal drug exposure effects the function of the brain, psychologists and those involved in treating attention and behavior problems in children may have some new information to help them with treatment.

Willford, who joined the SRU faculty in 2012, and her student researchers are working with functional magnetic resonance imaging data to examine brain function related to children's ability to regulate behavior and attention.

Tracy Cross, a counseling psychology graduate student from Slippery Rock, along with psychology majors Tim Martin from Wellsboro, Jillian Chappel from Waynesburg and Hannah Malloy from Gibsonia are conducting the research.

Dilrukshika Singhabahu, an instructor in SRU's mathematics department, is also collaborating on the research project.

Willford's research is funded by a grant through the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

Thus far, Willford's neuroimaging study is evaluating the underlying effects of prenatal drug exposure on brain functions associated with behavior and cognitive problems.

"We are using functional neuroimaging to examine the effects of prenatal drug exposure including cocaine, alcohol, tobacco and marijuana on changes in brain activation while performing attention tasks," Willford said.

"Because we have detailed information about the development of each of our subjects, we are able to take health, psychological status and current drug use into consideration while interpreting the results of our study," she said.

"This study will provide a link between prenatal drug exposure, neurocognitive performance, and the underlying neural substrates associated with behavioral outcomes of attention," she said.

By understanding the causes of an inability to focus attention, strategies may be developed to help individuals with such problems, she said.

"The long-term goal of this research is to examine the effects of prenatal drug exposures on behavior and brain outcomes," she said. "Our focus is on cognitive and behavior regulation in children and young adults."

"Specifically, we want to examine the brain while it is working, using functional MRI in young adults, ages 18 to 22. We are seeing an interesting story evolve. But, the story has really become more complex as we study it," she said.

"We are learning more about how the effects of prenatal drug exposure on attention interact with our study participants own drug use as a young adult".

"We are seeing marijuana use in young adulthood, and the data is showing that usage is playing a key role in understanding the relation between prenatal exposure to drugs and attention systems in the brain during young adulthood," she said.

"By using functional MRI, we can see brain functions almost as they are happening. The scans of the brain take place rapidly, so we can look at consecutive images of the brain, and because we know the timing of the scan and the timing of the task, we can map the two together to see what areas of the brain are active in relation to the cogitative task at hand," she said.

"The current research study focuses on three types of attention networks in the brain including arousal, choosing the right focus for attention, and 'executive attention,' or the ability to manage distractions so we can stay focused," she said. "These activities make use of three separate circuits in the brain, and we can see and track them in the scans."

"My graduate and undergraduate student research team is working together to analyze the data to see how prenatal and current drug exposure affects the function of the three circuits," she said. The group expects to finish its work by the early spring.

"I hope the major benefit of this research will be to provide valuable information that will inform interventions for children with prenatal drug exposure. There has already been 30 years of prenatal drug exposure work, but only recently have we had the chance to look inside the brain and see what is really going on. That is new," she said.

"We would hope we could ultimately understand how drug exposure affects the developing brain so that others can treat those who are affected. We think our work will translate into something that will be relevant to therapeutic interventions," Willford said.

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.