Vaping in pregnancy increases the risk of having a child with behavioural problems, according to new research.
Exposure to flavoured e-cig chemicals in the womb leads to hyperactive offspring, while those with nicotine cause even more dramatic changes to a growing foetus’ grey matter, warn scientists.
Lead author Professor Mathilakath Vijayan said: “Vape flavourants dull sensory perception and cause hyperactivity in developing zebrafish embryos.”
Smoking conventional cigarettes during pregnancy has been linked to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and autism in children.
The latest findings, published in the journal Biology Letters, suggest vaping could also trigger neurological conditions.
Experiments on zebrafish indicate it harms the developing structure of a baby’s brain. Embryonic development is surprisingly similar in the humble marine creature.
Smoke toxins can pass to a foetus and have an affect on brain chemistry, explained Prof Vijayan.
He said: “Vaping during pregnancy exposes the developing baby’s brain to chemicals in the vape.
“Our results suggest flavours have the potential to impact pre-natal brain development.”
His team at the University of Calgary, Canada, used a technique called PMR (photomotor response). It causes zebrafish embryos to move under light.
The animal model showed exposure to vaping in the womb altered their behaviour – and dulled sensory perception.
Prof Vijayan said: “We tested the effects of flavoured blue raspberry and cinnamon and unflavored vape liquids with and without nicotine.
“While the unflavored vapes had no impact, the flavoured vapes even without nicotine caused profound behavioural changes which were similar to nicotine alone.
“Vaping during pregnancy exposes the developing baby’s brain to chemicals in the vape.”
He added: “Flavoured vapes with nicotine caused even more behavioural alterations.”
The use of e-cigs during pregnancy has been on the rise, partly due to the perception they are safer than traditional tobacco.
Last year the Royal College of Midwives advised pregnant women to use them to help them quit smoking.
But Prof Vijayan said there is limited information on the health impacts to unborn children.
He said: “With more than 7,000 vape flavours on the market, each having unique profiles of chemicals in the final aerosol, characterising their potential neurotoxicity will be an onerous task.”
One in 10 women in England are smokers at the time they give birth, rising to one in five in the worst areas.
Prof Vijayan added: “Results from this study provide the first evidence that the PMR may prove to be an ideal candidate for screening vape flavours for developmental neurotoxicity.”
Studying pregnancy in zebrafish is ideal as the process is much faster – and can be watched as it unfolds.
One day after fertilisation, a woman’s egg has divided into two – and nine months later a child is born.
In zebrafish, the split happens in 15 minutes. After 24 hours, the embryo is a recognisable organism with a beating heart and circulating blood cell.
Speed is not the only advantage. In the first days of the life, the embryo is transparent. It is possible to follow the development in real time under a microscope.