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Early Hum Dev. 2007 Nov;83(11):727-32. Epub 2007 Sep 21.

The relationship of maternal smoking to psychological problems in the offspring.

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Institute for Behavioral Genetics, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, USA.


There is strong evidence for an association between maternal smoking in pregnancy and psychological problems in offspring. The problems most frequently associated are attention problems, hyperactivity, and conduct problems, although there is some evidence for an association with substance use problems as well. The nature of this association is unclear, but it is likely the result of a number of different mechanisms. Animal studies provide evidence for a causal relationship, in which exposure to nicotine has detrimental effects on foetal development. Other studies suggest that factors that correlate with maternal prenatal smoking may be the real risk factors for behavioural problems, although evidence that the associations remain after controlling for such risks goes some way to dispel this as the only explanation. Finally, maternal prenatal smoking may index underlying psychological problems in the mother that are inherited by the offspring. In all likelihood, a combination of these mechanisms may contribute to observed relationships between prenatal smoking and offspring psychological problems. Now that the association is well established, future research needs to focus more strongly on disentangling underlying mechanisms. Although animal studies demonstrate a casual relationship, it appears from other research that this may not be the whole story in human samples. Furthermore, the relationship may only exist under certain conditions (i.e. against a certain genetic background), and this possibility warrants further examination, particularly in relation to other genetic risks, and outcomes other than ADHD. Application of the children-of-twins design may also cast further light on the processes involved.

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