Serious Infection During Pregnancy Can Increase Fetal Autism and Depression Development Risk, Study Says

Pregnant women who have severe infections while carrying their child have an increased natal risk for autism spectrum disorder and depression. This the alarming result of a new study that suggests serious infections—like sepsis, pneumonia, and even the flu—during pregnancy, can have a profound impact on the stasis of the newborn. 

According to this study, children who are born to mothers with a “serious” infection could be at a 79 percent increased risk for diagnosis on the autism spectrum as well as 24 percent increased risk for depression (as an adult).  In addition, the researchers say they also found that these children appear to be at an increased risk for suicide. 

The researchers also make sure to note that this increased risk for depression and autism was detected regardless of the type of infection.  In other words, they learned that anything from sepsis to encephalitis to meningitis to influenza could yield these results about as evenly as fetal exposure to pyelonephritis (a severe kidney infection), chorioamnionitis (placental tissue infection), or a urinary tract infection.

The study analyzed data taken from pregnant women hospitalized between 1973 and 2014 and compared with 1,791,520 children born to these women after having been exposed to their infections, in utero. 

Of course, while this discovery appears to be quite definitive, the data is still preliminary. Study co-author Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf explains, “We need more research into understanding the inflammation that occurs in the urinary tract infection and how it might impact the fetus.” This relates, of course, to how the fetal brain may also be vulnerable to damage from other infections and types of inflammation. 

The University of Washington School of Medicine professor of obstetrics and gynecology goes on to say, “The hippocampus is a very vulnerable part of the brain that is targeted by Zika virus infection but may be vulnerable to other infections as well.” She also notes that this is the brain region where social and emotional function develop. 

In a press release, Adams Waldorf stresses the importance of getting a broader view of how vulnerable the fetal brain can be to both infection and inflammation.  “In the meantime,” she says, “we should aggressively act to prevent and treat infections during pregnancy when we can.”

The result of the study has been published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

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