Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences

, Volume 76, Issue 4, pp 729–743 | Cite as

Cannabinoid exposure during pregnancy and its impact on immune function

  • Catherine Dong
  • Jingwen Chen
  • Amy Harrington
  • K. Yaragudri Vinod
  • Muralidhar L. Hegde
  • Venkatesh L. HegdeEmail author


Cannabinoids are the most commonly abused illicit drugs worldwide. While cannabis can be beneficial for certain heath conditions, abuse of potent synthetic cannabinoids has been on the rise. Exposure to cannabinoids is also prevalent in women of child-bearing age and pregnant women. These compounds can cross the placental barrier and directly affect the fetus. They mediate their effects primarily through G-protein coupled cannabinoid receptors, CB1 and CB2. In addition to significant neurological effects, cannabinoids can trigger robust immunomodulation by altering cytokine levels, causing apoptosis of lymphoid cells and inducing suppressor cells of the immune system. Profound effects of cannabinoids on the immune system as discussed in this review, suggest that maternal exposure during pregnancy could lead to dysregulation of innate and adaptive immune system of developing fetus and offspring potentially leading to weakening of immune defenses against infections and cancer later in life. Emerging evidence also indicates the underlying role of epigenetic mechanisms causing long-lasting impact following cannabinoid exposure in utero.


Fetus Immune system Marijuana Metabolites Neurological Pregnancy Perinatal Prenatal Substance abuse 



Catherine Dong and Amy Harrington received the Magellan Fellowships from the University of South Carolina. The authors’ research on cannabinoids was supported by the US National Institutes of Health (Grants DA034892 to VLH and DA020531 to KYV).


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of MedicineMedical University of South CarolinaCharlestonUSA
  2. 2.School of PharmacyMedical University of South CarolinaCharlestonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Arts and SciencesUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  4. 4.Department of Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology, School of MedicineUniversity of South CarolinaColumbiaUSA
  5. 5.Division of Analytical PsychopharmacologyNathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric ResearchOrangeburgUSA
  6. 6.Emotional Brain InstituteOrangeburgUSA
  7. 7.Child and Adolescent PsychiatryNew York School of MedicineNew YorkUSA
  8. 8.Department of Radiation Oncology, Institute for Academic Medicine and Research InstituteThe Houston Methodist Research Institute (HMRI)HoustonUSA

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