Cocaine use by women with infants and young children is highly correlated with child neglect. Both mothers and infants play important roles in care-giving and elicitation of care respectively, so drug use or infant prenatal exposure to drugs likely play an interactive role in the disruption of maternal care. Despite the high rate of neglect in this population, little is understood about how cocaine use specifically interferes with maternal-infant interactions. A rat model of cocaine-induced maternal neglect indicated that rodent mothers from both drug- treated and control groups exhibited delayed or lessened maternal behavior towards cocaine-exposed infants during the early postpartum period. Delayed maternal behavior was even more pronounced in cocaine-treated mothers. These data imply that in animal models, cocaine-induced changes in both mother and infant influence quality of maternal care. Since similar behavioral changes are reported in both human and non- human studies, a translational project aimed at examining human and animal models can more directly assess changes in specific, highly relevant behaviors of mothers and infants that affect their interactions. Human and rodent mothers attend to infant vocalizations. Vocalizations of cocaine-exposed infants may be altered, and thus elicit differential care from mothers.
The specific aims of this project focus on understanding why mothers who abuse drugs during pregnancy, specifically cocaine, show an increase in neglectful behavior towards their infant, and if cries produced from these infants contribute to neglectful care received. It will be determined if a) prenatal cocaine exposure in human and rodent infants results in changes in specific cry characteristics and b) if these differences alter human and rodent maternal response to the cries, particularly in drug-exposed mothers. The proposed experiments will be the first systematic evaluation of these measures in both human and animal models simultaneously. The long-term objectives serve to determine how cocaine exposure affects early nurturing behavior and maternal-infant interactions and whether a common mechanism underlying one aspect of human and animal cocaine-induced neglect is involved.

Public Health Relevance

With the growing number of individuals who suffer from drug addiction, and the effect that parental drug addiction has on infants and children, it is imperative we begin to understand the complex relationship between drug use and maternal behavior. Using both human and animal models has the capacity to speed discovery and inform basic science to translate into early detection markers for use in the clinic. By determining the effects of cocaine on human and rodent infant vocalizations and the effects of these altered vocalizations on maternal response we can begin to understand the meaning of cocaine-induced vocalizations on maternal care.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)
Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31)
Project #
Application #
Study Section
Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1-F12B-C (20))
Program Officer
Sirocco, Karen
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
University of North Carolina Chapel Hill
Other Basic Sciences
Schools of Medicine
Chapel Hill
United States
Zip Code
Lippard, E T Cox; Jarrett, T M; McMurray, M S et al. (2015) Early postpartum pup preference is altered by gestational cocaine treatment: associations with infant cues and oxytocin expression in the MPOA. Behav Brain Res 278:176-85
Zeskind, Philip Sanford; McMurray, Matthew S; Cox Lippard, Elizabeth T et al. (2014) Translational analysis of effects of prenatal cocaine exposure on human infant cries and rat pup ultrasonic vocalizations. PLoS One 9:e110349
Cox, E T; Hodge, C W; Sheikh, M J et al. (2012) Delayed developmental changes in neonatal vocalizations correlates with variations in ventral medial hypothalamus and central amygdala development in the rodent infant: effects of prenatal cocaine. Behav Brain Res 235:166-75
Cox, Elizabeth Thomas; Jarrett, Thomas Merryfield; McMurray, Matthew Stephen et al. (2011) Combined norepinephrine/serotonergic reuptake inhibition: effects on maternal behavior, aggression, and oxytocin in the rat. Front Psychiatry 2:34
Eiden, Rina D; Schuetze, Pamela; Veira, Yvette et al. (2011) Cocaine Exposure and Children's Self-Regulation: Indirect Association via Maternal Harshness. Front Psychiatry 2:31