Oxytocin Effects on Cocaine-Induced Maternal Neglect

Project: Research project


We propose to study a promising new treatment which targets the negative effects that cocaine use during pregnancy has on mothering behavior. We focus on this topic because cocaine use is a persistent mental and physical health problem across the nation, and in North Carolina specifically, with ~ 2% of residents reporting use in rural, urban and suburban settings1. In the past decade cocaine use has increased dramatically in women of child-bearing age. Cocaine abuse during pregnancy is highly correlated not only with maternal depression, but also with rates of disorganized caretaking, and at its most extreme, with infant and child neglect and abuse 2-5. However, even without abuse, their children are at increased risk of physical, behavioral, psychiatric and academic problems,and of becoming drug abusers themselves,6 thus perpetuating the cycle across generations. Drug-related maternal neglect is the primary reason children are removed from the home, contributing to up to 90% of child placements in the overburdened welfare system7. In those who retain custody of their children (85%), research shows that early parental behaviors are the most powerful determinants of infants’ cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physical development. The early postnatal environment, of which mother is the primary architect, appears to have at least as strong, if not stronger, effect on infant developmental trajectories as does in utero cocaine exposure 8. Improving maternal behavior during this critical time would confer long-lasting benefits to both mother and child.
Although the actual causes of cocaine-related child neglect remain largely unknown, animal research suggests that cocaine ‘hijacks’ the brain systems that are naturally involved in the pleasure-inducing aspects of important social relationships such as mother-infant bonds. Drs. Grewen, Belger and Johns at UNC have been examining the underlying mechanisms of cocaine-induced maternal neglect as part of a program project studying both human and rodent mothers and infants. This allows more effective investigation of how the brain is changed by cocaine, and of how these changes relate to mothering-infant interactions. An important goal is to discover early treatments that will reduce the negative impact of prenatal cocaine on mothering behaviors. One possible new treatment is oxytocin, a natural molecule involved in childbirth and breastfeeding. However it also acts in the brain to promote important social bonds such as those formed between mother-infant, close friends and devoted partners. Oxytocin facilitates important social bonding in humans and other mammals. It is involved in reducing stress and anxiety, while promoting calmness, social approach and nurturing behaviors9-12 One way cocaine may interfere with mother-infant bonding is by disrupting the oxytocin system in the brain9,13-15. Rodent studies conducted by Dr. Johns and others indicate that cocaine use during pregnancy not only results in neglect of offspring, but also in lower levels of oxytocin in brain regions involved in maternal response to infants10,13,16-19. Studies by Dr. Grewen reveal that human mothers who use cocaine during pregnancy have impaired nurturing behavior, greater anxiety and irritability while interacting with infants, reduced oxytocin and greater stress hormones levels in blood.
Dr. Pedersen has used the proposed intranasal oxytocin treatment to effectively and safely reduce anxiety, alcohol tolerance and withdrawal symptoms in alcohol-dependent men and women. Treatment with oxytocin blocks the stimulant effects of cocaine in rodents (sarnyai).To date there have been no studies of the effectiveness of oxytocin treatment on cocaine-induced maternal neglect. The proposed research would be the first to test whether short term postpartum oxytocin treatment can improve maternal response to infants. It is strengthened by complimentary study of both humans and rodents. Funding from the Foundat
Effective start/end date5/1/154/30/18


  • Foundation of Hope for Research and Treatment of Mental Illness


Child Abuse
Child Custody
Maternal Behavior
Cocaine-Related Disorders
Substance Withdrawal Syndrome
Drug Users
Breast Feeding
Postpartum Period