Paediatrics at the University of Miami have shown in a study that prenatal cocaine exposure renders students weaker at focussing attention in their early school years.
The doctors gave attention tests to 415 African-American children, aged 5 to 7 years at that time and 14 to 16 years now. The mothers of 219 of the children had taken cocaine while pregnant, and the mothers of the other 196 had not. All of the mothers were poor and living in the Miami inner city.
Children born to cocaine-addicted women scored more poorly on attention tests than the other kids, were more likely to make errors of omission, and had slower reaction times on tasks.
"This study provides further evidence of a subtle but consistent effect on attention through early school-aged years," said lead author Veronica Accornero, assistant professor of clinical paediatrics at the University of Miami, whose findings have been published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
The researchers, however, admitted that the effects were minor. One doctor even suggested that prenatal cocaine exposure's effects were next to the problems caused when pregnant mothers use alcohol and tobacco.
In general, children born to cocaine-using mothers "are doing much better than anyone predicted, especially considering their background," said Tamara Warner, research assistant professor at the University of Florida.
During and after the crack epidemic of the 1980s, the so-called "crack babies" were the subject of media coverage that raised much of concern about their futures.
Accornero, however, says that the effects in general "appear to be more subtle and specific than initially believed."
She said that the children did not appear to have a hard time with "intellectual functioning", although they might have difficulties with language, attention, and behaviour.
The researchers are still unclear as to what effects these children may have to bear later in their life.
"Certainly, attention and the ability to maintain attention is an important skill that supports the development of other skills like language and behaviour," Accornero said.
"It's possible that because of subtle deficits we may see an effect on academic performance. We just don't know yet," she added.