Abnormal Brain Development in South African Children of Mothers Addicted to Methamphetamine

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Over the past two decades, South Africa has experienced a slow-moving health crisis brought on by extreme use of Methamphetamine. Reports from the Medical Research Council, based on treatment data, show that in 2002 less than one percent of patients at the Cape Town drug counseling center admitted to using the drug, locally known as tik. But six years later this number had increased to 52%. A more recent report by the Mowbray maternity hospital shows that substance abuse among expectant mothers has tripled over the past five years, with tik being the predominant drug used.

In 2013, Dr. Kristen Donald of the Red Cross children’s hospital in Cape Town released a study showing abnormalities in the brains of children whose mothers used during their pregnancies. The areas of the children’s brains that were affected corresponded to the specific locations of the brain that would be impacted by an actual user. The effects of children exposed to the drug in utero become clearer as they begin school. Dr. Donald explains that children whose mothers were heavy users have “significant developmental problems” that result in “cognitive and academic” challenges. These children are hyperactive, struggle with concentration, and are more aggressive and impulsive than their peers. For example, Lynne Isaacs, a 36-year-old mother of five, shared that she used during the first five months of her pregnancy with her now 11-year-old son, who has failed a year of school due to difficulties with concentration. Marion Hendricks, principal of the Ocean View care center, recognizes the risk of these children following their parents’ path and the normalization of it in their culture, stating, “it’s something they grew up with and they think it’s OK…” She refers tik-affected children to occupational therapist Janine Bence, who meets with each child one-on-one to help them learn how to regulate themselves.

Experts believe there is a correlation between the tik epidemic and high dropout rates in schools. South Africa’s education department reported in 2005 that approximately 1.23 million students enrolled in first grade. According to department figures only 827, 324 of those students registered to take their matriculation exams last year.

Source: Leila Dee Dougan, “Addicts at Birth: Ocean View’s ‘Tik Babies,’” Daily Maverick (South Africa), January 10, 2017, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-01-10-addicts-at-birth-ocean-views-tik-babies/; reprinted as “Devastating Impact of Meth in the Womb Exposed in South African Schools,”  Guardian, February 2, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/feb/02/south-africa-schoolchildren-failing-crystal-meth-pregnancy.

Student Researcher: Miranda Webster (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)