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Researchers at VCU and Sweden’s Lund University Conclude Pregnancy is Powerful in Ending Drug Abuse

VCU - Kenneth Kendler
VCU - Kenneth Kendler

Researchers in Sweden and at Virginia Commonwealth University, have concluded that pregnancy can be a powerful motivator to quit drug abuse.

VCU’s Kenneth Kendler, Professor of psychiatry and first author of the study of 150 thousand women showing pregnancy played a powerful role,“The main results of this study were that rates of drug abuse declined 78% during pregnancy…similarly strong effects were found to extend after pregnancy when the women had little toddlers that they had to care for.

Dr. Kendler’s research began with his belief human volition was a more powerful factor in controlling drug abuse than previously thought, “So this started from a clinical experience, in which a young woman who had had a very difficult time with cocaine for many years, going in and out of therapy multiple treatments met a man, got married, got pregnant, was still using drugs during that time period and then, when the little girl was about a year and a half old, the girl toddled into the bathroom, and looked up and found her mother snorting cocaine and at that point the mother looked down at her and said I’ve got to stop this and she quit stone-cold, never going back to it. It suggested to me that if somebody cares enough about something, that can change despite the rewiring of the brain that occurs during drug abuse if you motivate people strongly enough, they can overcome those urges.”

He was looking for naturally occurring motivations, and settled on pregnancy as being a perfect place to start. Lund University in Sweden had identified and followed 150 thousand women who gave birth between ages 20 and 35 and of those, some 3800 had a history of drug abuse, and 4/5th of them, overcame it.

Kendler says, “I think what it suggests is that these kinds of motivations can often overcome the biological factors…not always….that is 20 percent of women continue to abuse drugs despite being pregnant…but the large reduction suggested that many, and in this case in most circumstances…women were able to stop and don’t wish to expose their infant to the drugs.”

But he says, the study goes far beyond pregnancy as a motivation.

“My hope is that the results of this study will encourage psychiatrists and others treating drug abuse to resist the temptation to assume that drug abuse is just a problem of brain functioning it is also a problem of will and volition. People are able if sufficiently motivated to help themselves stop drug abuse.”