Researchers have found a link between a mother getting an infection during pregnancy and the likelihood that her child will develop a mental disorder later in life.
A massive study that involved a total of 1,791,520 children in Sweden born between Jan. 1, 1973 and Dec. 31, 2014, probed the long-term impacts of the occurrence of maternal infection during pregnancy to the child. The data on infection and diagnosis of mental disorder were derived from records of hospitalization.
The findings were revealed in a paper published by JAMA Psychiatry on March 6, Wednesday.
Maternal Infection During Pregnancy Increases Risk of Autism, Depression
The researchers found that children whose mothers had been hospitalized for any infection during pregnancy have a higher risk of being diagnosed with autism (79 percent) and depression (24 percent). The likelihood that the child will have a mental disorder later in life was observed even when the mother was treated for mild infections, including UTI.
The study, however, did not show an increased risk of psychosis, including schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
Previous research found that maternal infection by certain pathogens, including the herpes virus, during pregnancy can seriously harm the child. It might lead to brain injury, abnormal brain development, and mental disorders.
It is unclear how pathogens that do not directly attack the fetal brain could lead to a diagnosis of mental disorder later. However, Kristina Adams Waldorf, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the UW School of Medicine and an author of the study, pointed out that some parts of the fetal brain, particularly those involved in social and emotional function, are "exquisitely vulnerable" to damages caused by infections and inflammations.
"This could help explain how infection and inflammation during pregnancy increase the child's risk of autism, in which social interaction is affected, and the risk of emotional disorders, such as depression," she stated.
Prevention Is Better Than Cure
Adams Waldorf expressed concern for women who refuse to get vaccinated.
"They are not only putting themselves at risk for serious and even fatal infections, but they may be putting their infants at risk for neuropsychiatric disorders later in life," she stated.
The researchers hope that their findings would encourage medical professionals to "take a broader view" of how a maternal infection during pregnancy can affect the child's brain in the long run.