Prenatal cannabis exposure - The “first hit” to the endocannabinoid system

Kimberlei A. Richardson, Allison K. Hester, Gabrielle L. McLemore

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


As more states and countries legalize medical and/or adult recreational marijuana use, the incidences of prenatal cannabis exposure (PCE) will likely increase. While young people increasingly view marijuana as innocuous, marijuana preparations have been growing in potency in recent years, potentially creating global clinical, public health, and workforce concerns. Unlike fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, there is no phenotypic syndrome associated with PCE. There is also no preponderance of evidence that PCE causes lifelong cognitive, behavioral, or functional abnormalities, and/or susceptibility to subsequent addiction. However, there is compelling circumstantial evidence, based on the principles of teratology and fetal malprogramming, suggesting that pregnant women should refrain from smoking marijuana. The usage of marijuana during pregnancy perturbs the fetal endogenous cannabinoid signaling system (ECSS), which is present and active from the early embryonic stage, modulating neurodevelopment and continuing this role into adulthood. The ECSS is present in virtually every brain structure and organ system, and there is also evidence that this system is important in the regulation of cardiovascular processes. Endocannabinoids (eCBs) undergird a broad spectrum of processes, including the early stages of fetal neurodevelopment and uterine implantation. Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive chemical in cannabis, enters maternal circulation, and readily crosses the placental membrane. THC binds to CB receptors of the fetal ECSS, altering neurodevelopment and possibly rewiring ECSS circuitry. In this review, we discuss the Double-Hit Hypothesis as it relates to PCE. We contend that PCE, similar to a neurodevelopmental teratogen, delivers the first hit to the ECSS, which is compromised in such a way that a second hit (i.e., postnatal stressors) will precipitate the emergence of a specific phenotype. In summary, we conclude that perturbations of the intrauterine milieu via the introduction of exogenous CBs alter the fetal ECSS, predisposing the offspring to abnormalities in cognition and altered emotionality. Based on recent experimental evidence that we will review here, we argue that young women who become pregnant should immediately take a “pregnant pause” from using marijuana.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5-14
Number of pages10
JournalNeurotoxicology and Teratology
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Double hit hypothesis
  • Epigenetics
  • Fetal malprogramming
  • Fetal neurodevelopment
  • Marijuana
  • Maternal cannabis exposure
  • Neurodevelopment
  • Prenatal cannabis exposure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

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