In a new study, researchers found that a male’s marijuana use appears to alter sperm prior to mating, causing offspring to develop distinct abnormalities in areas of the brain that help govern learning, memory, reward, and mood.
The research was led by a team at Duke University.
While other studies have tracked the effect of maternal use of THC or marijuana during pregnancy, few studies have concentrated on fathers’ use.
Last year, another Duke team found that a specific gene linked to autism appears to undergo changes in the sperm of men who use marijuana.
In the study, the team aimed to see whether offspring experienced any effect from a father’s pre-mating exposure to marijuana, specifically to the chemical THC that is responsible for the drug’s high.
They found when the male mice were exposed to marijuana prior to mating, the brain anomalies of the offspring closely resembled changes that are evident in human babies exposed as fetuses to known neurotoxins such as pesticides and tobacco smoke.
The team says the findings are translatable from rats to humans because the same brain circuits are involved in both humans and rats.
Changes in the father’s sperm impact how the offspring’s brains develop in the womb.
Key neurological pathways form, but their activity is suppressed, causing functional deficiencies that affect learning, memory, and attention.
The team says the study demonstrates that marijuana use by fathers, not just mothers, can have an impact on the health of offspring even when use occurs before conception.
In light of the shifting policy landscape around marijuana use in the U.S. and Canada, findings will be shared with relevant policymakers, the medical community, and the public.
One author of the study is Theodore Slotkin, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology at Duke.
The study is published in Toxicological Sciences.
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