Funded and facilitated by the VCU Wright Center, researchers study the effect of marijuana use on pregnant and postpartum mothers

As marijuana decriminalization and legalization laws inch across the country state by state, health care providers are seeing more women use the drug during pregnancy. According to a 2019 national study, the rate of marijuana use during pregnancy doubled between 2002 and 2017 — to about 7%.

“There’s this popular belief that cannabis is relatively safe,” said Nancy Jallo, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Nursing. “But it does contain lots of different substances, one of which, THC, is rapidly distributed in the brain and has been found to disrupt neural connections.”

Those connections in the brain — how they affect maternal attachment and breastfeeding — are the focus of new research projects at VCU. Clinicians like Jallo, across multiple disciplines, are launching pilot studies that hope to fill gaps in knowledge about marijuana use during the perinatal period, the time before and after birth.

With the help of VCU’s C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, their research will lead to treatments and educational output for patients and health care providers, providing a critical need in a field with more questions than answers.

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In addition to funding, the Wright Center’s Collaborative Advance Research Imaging facility is crucial to one study.

To look at neural connections, the researchers need access to a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. An fMRI scan shows brain function in addition to structure. Rather than remain still, study participants will interact with the study team while they are in the machine, giving the team insight into how their brains work.

The CARI facility is home to VCU’s research-dedicated fMRI machine, giving researchers access to the technology they need.

“That the CARI facility is designed to be a research center is such a gift,” Jallo said. “It’s an invaluable tool for translational neuroscience. Without it, we couldn’t do the work.”

CTSA Program In Action Goals
Goal 1: Train and Cultivate the Translational Science Workforce
Goal 3: Promote the Integration of Special and Underserved Populations in Translational Research Across the Human Lifespan