Objective. To compare plasma catecholamine concentrations between cocaine-exposed and unexposed term newborns and to determine the relationship between plasma catecholamines and newborn behavior.

Methods. Forty-six newborn infants participating in a prospective study of the neonatal and long-term effects of prenatal cocaine exposure were studied. Based on maternal self-report, maternal urine screening, and infant meconium analysis, 24 infants were classified as cocaine-exposed and 22 as unexposed. Between 24 and 72 hours postpartum, plasma samples for norepinephrine (NE), epinephrine, dopamine, and dihydroxyphenylalanine analysis were obtained. The Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale was administered at 1 to 3 days of age and at 2 weeks of age by examiners masked to the drug exposure status of the newborns.

Results. The cocaine-exposed newborns had increased plasma NE concentrations when compared to the unexposed infants (geometric mean, 923 pg/mL vs 667 pg/mL). There were no significant differences in plasma epinephrine, dopamine, or dihydroxyphenylalanine concentrations. Analysis for the effect of potential confounding variables revealed that maternal marijuana use was also associated with increased plasma NE, although birth weight, gender, and maternal use of alcohol or cigarettes were not. Geometric mean plasma NE was 1164 pg/mL in those infants with in utero exposure to both cocaine and marijuana compared to 812 pg/mL in those exposed to only cocaine and 667 pg/mL in those exposed to neither. Among the cocaine-exposed infants, plasma NE concentration correlated with an increased score for the depressed cluster (r = .53) and a decreased score for the orientation cluster (r = −.43) of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale administered at 1 to 3 days of age. Adjusting for marijuana exposure had no effect on these relationships between plasma NE and the depressed and orientation clusters.

Conclusion. Plasma NE is increased in newborns exposed to cocaine and marijuana. Increased plasma NE is associated with selected neurobehavioral disturbances among cocaine exposed infants at 1 to 3 days of life but not at 2 weeks.

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