The epigenetic legacy of illicit drugs: Developmental exposures and late-life phenotypes

Nicole M. Wanner, Mathia L. Colwell, Christopher Faulk

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


The effects of in utero exposure to illicit drugs on adult offspring are a significant and widespread but understudied global health concern, particularly in light of the growing opioid epidemic and emerging therapeutic uses for cannabis, ketamine, and MDMA. Epigenetic mechanisms including DNA methylation, histone modifications, and expression of non-coding RNAs provide a mechanistic link between the prenatal environment and health consequences years beyond the original exposure, and shifts in the epigenome present in early life or adolescence can lead to disease states only appearing during adulthood. The current review summarizes the literature assessing effects of perinatal illicit drug exposure on adult disease phenotypes as mediated by perturbations of the epigenome. Both behavioral and somatic phenotypes are included and studies reporting clinical data in adult offspring, epigenetic readouts in offspring of any age, or both phenotypic and epigenetic measures are prioritized. Studies of licit substances of abuse (i.e. alcohol, nicotine) are excluded with a focus on cannabis, psychostimulants, opioids, and psychedelics; current issues in the field and areas of interest for further investigation are also discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEnvironmental Epigenetics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the NIH Office of the Director (T32OD010993 to N.M.W.), NIEHS (R01ES026877 to M.L.C.), and NIEHS Pathways to Independence Award (R00ES022221 to C.F.). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s) 2019. Published by Oxford University Press.


  • Addiction
  • Cannabinoids
  • Developmental programing
  • Epigenetics
  • Illicit drugs
  • Opioids


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