By On December 6th, 2018

Childhood infections linked to later mental health issues in new study

Could a common childhood infection make you more likely to develop a mental health issue later in life? According to a new study from Denmark, that may just be the case.

According to research published in JAMA Psychiatry, a wide range of childhood infections like bronchitis may be tied to a higher risk of mental illness in childhood or adolescence.

“The findings linking infections with mental disorders in the developing brain do add more knowledge to this growing field, showing that there exists an intimate connection between the body and the brain,” said lead researcher Dr. Ole Kohler-Forsberg, from the psychosis research unit at Aarhus University Hospital.

In particular, those that require hospitalization for a severe infection or those who required drugs to treat the infection were at the highest risk for later mental disorders. Still, the report shows a significant link between the two that is worthy of exploration.

Specifically, the researchers found that children who had been hospitalized with an infection had an 84% chance of being diagnosed with a mental disorder, as well as a 42% increased chance among those given prescription drugs for their infection.

The explanation behind the link is still unclear, but Kohler-Forsberg believes it may suggest that the inflammatory reactions triggered by infections can have an effect on a developing brain.

“This can, however, also be explained by other causes, such as some people having a genetically higher risk of suffering more infections and mental disorders,” he said.

Additionally, this issue is complicated by the fact that infections are considered a necessary part of the process to develop a strong immune system as children age. Typically, infections leave no lasting harm to the body or brain.

“But for some individuals, an infection can affect the brain and lead to lasting damage, although this is a rare event.”

For the study, the team of researchers used data collected from more than 1 million people born in Denmark between 1995 and 2012. Of those individuals, approximately 4% were hospitalized for a mental disorder, while 5% were given drugs for their condition.

Based on the team’s findings, those that were treated with medications for their infection – specifically those given antibiotics – showed the highest risk for mental illness. Of the various kinds of infections, bacterial infections carried the highest risk.

The infections were tied to a specific subset of mental health issues, including schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental retardation, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and compulsive tics.

“A better understanding of the role of infections and antimicrobial therapy in the development of mental disorders might lead to new methods for the prevention and treatment of these devastating disorders,” Kohler-Forsberg said.

While the findings support a growing connection between the two, Kohler-Forsberg is quick to caution the findings do not definitively tie childhood infections with later mental illness.

Additionally, the researchers cautioned against using the findings to draw conclusions about any single infection.

“Therefore, parents should generally not be worried, Kohler-Forsberg said. “We also showed in a different paper that cognition is not affected by the number of infections in childhood.”

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