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Smoking's effects may be seen in unborn babies, study says

A fetus whose mother is a smoker exhibits

A fetus whose mother is a smoker exhibits much more movement (top) than a fetus whose mother is a non-smoker (below). Because fetuses gain more control over their movements the closer they get to birth, the study suggests that the fetal central nervous system develops at a slower rate in fetuses born to smokers than those whose mothers are nonsmokers. Photo Credit: Dr. Nadja Reissland

A new pilot study has produced high-resolution images that may show visible evidence that smoking during pregnancy affects the development of unborn babies. 

Researchers at Lancaster and Durham universities studied images of 20 fetuses pictured in 80 4-d ultrasound scans and found that the fetuses of smoking mothers differed in the amounts they touched their faces and moved their mouths than those of mothers who were nonsmokers.

Four of the unborn children belonged to mothers who smoked an average of 19 cigarettes a day, and their scans showed a significant increase in the rate of mouth movements over time, the study found.

The other 16 fetuses belonged to mothers who were nonsmokers, and their scans showed a decline in the rate of mouth movements during pregnancy — which is expected.

Researchers think this shows that the fetal central nervous system, which controls movement, develops at a slower rate in fetuses born to smokers than that of those whose mothers are nonsmokers. (The study also noted that previous studies have shown delays in relation to speech processing abilities in infants exposed to smoking during pregnancy.)

“Technology means we can now see what was previously hidden, revealing how smoking affects the development of the fetus in ways we did not realize," said Professor Brian Francis of Lancaster University, in an article posted to the university's website. Francis added that the results of the study are "yet further evidence of the negative effects of smoking in pregnancy.”

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