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Caffeine in pregnancy linked to nervous system changes in offspring

Study finds changes to fibre tracts in the brain

A retrospective study of caffeine intake in pregnancy and structural brain changes in 9-10 year old children suggests caffeine exposure in the uterus could be altering children’s brain structures. The changes appear to have small but noticeable effects on behaviour, attention and hyperactivity. The authors suggest advice to pregnant women about caffeine may need revision.

Pregnant women are generally advised to avoid consuming more than about 200 mg of caffeine a day, equivalent to a couple of cups of coffee. Consuming more than this has been linked to several adverse birth outcomes. EFSA reviewed the evidence for this in 2015. There are only a few studies which suggest caffeine can affect neurodevelopment as well. Caffeine was linked to IQ in a French cohort study in 2016 by Galéra and colleagues at University of Bordeaux. They found that maternal consumption of >200 mg daily in pregnancy was associated with significantly reduced IQ in 5 year old children compared with consumption of less than 100 mg daily. Danish researchers led by Suzanne Mikkelsen, found in another study that consumption of >8 cups of coffee by pregnant women was linked to several behavioural disorders in their offspring at age 11 years. Experiments in animals also indicate caffeine may affect neurodevelopment (see Further Reading).

This study used MRI to examine the organization of linkages between brain areas called fibre tracts in more than 9157 children aged 9 and 10. The mothers of 4125 of the children reported consuming caffeine more than once a week during pregnancy. Those children had structural differences in their fibre tracts and scored higher on psychopathology tests. The researchers didn’t find any effect on cognition, for example memory and efficiency at doing tasks.

The advantage of this study over previous ones is that it has, according to the authors, identified a biomarker – a particular structural change in the brain which could be monitored. The limitation of this study is that it relies on women remembering if they avoided caffeine or not many years before.


Find out more

caffeine (neuro* or brain) pregnancy



Zachary P. Christensen, Edward G. Freedman, John J. Foxe. Caffeine exposure in utero is associated with structural brain alterations and deleterious neurocognitive outcomes in 9–10 year old children. Neuropharmacology, Volume 186, 2021,108479,


Article details

  • Author(s)
  • I. Hoskins
  • Date
  • 11 February 2021
  • Subject(s)
  • Nutrition & disease