Mental Health Risks Tied to Steroid Injections Meant to Stop Premature Birth

steroid-injections-before-birth-mental-health-problemsA new study reveals that steroid injections used to prevent premature birth might increase future risks of behavioral and emotional problems in the developing children.

Expectant mothers who might give birth prematurely are often treated with an infusion of glucocorticoids. These drugs, wrote Psych Central, are cortisol mimickers; cortisol is a natural hormone. The treatment is meant to assist in the developing baby’s lung development; however new concerns have arisen that high glucocorticoids exposure in the womb might lead to dangerous, long-term effects on brain development.

Cortisol is naturally produced in the fetus during later pregnancy stages and works to help the lungs develop appropriately, according to Medical Daily. Premature babies often miss this important development stage, which leads to lung problems and life-threatening breathing issues.

Synthetic glucocorticoids are known to copy the effect of natural cortisol and, when given prior to birth, the glucocorticoid, betamethasone, reduces perinatal mortality and morbidity. The glucocorticoid, dexamethasone, is typically administered after birth to temporarily improve respiratory function, Medical Daily wrote.

Prior research has established that a link exists between stress during pregnancy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms in children, according to Psych Central. Cortisol is produced as a stress response and some science suggests that it is cortisol that might be responsible for the link, according to the researchers, Psych Central wrote.

For this study, researchers from the Imperial College London in England and the University of Oulu in Finland reviewed 37 children exposed to synthetic glucocorticoids prior to birth. The team compared these children to 185 children who were born at the same gestational age and who never received glucocorticoid treatment, according to Psych Central. The researchers also studied a larger comparison group involving 6,079 children who were matched on pregnancy and infant characteristics, to confirm the findings.

All of the participants were part of the Northern Finland Birth Cohort, which is a study that recruited women who were in early pregnancy in 1985-1986. The Cohort gathered information concerning the health of these children at age 8 and age 16. Psych Central reported.

Children exposed to synthetic glucocorticoids tested with poorer scores on general mental health at ages 8 and 16, and were likelier to exhibit ADHD symptoms, according to the research. “There are a lot of studies that have found links between stress in pregnancy and effects on children’s mental health, especially ADHD, and this might be related to cortisol,” said Alina Rodriguez, Ph.D., senior author of the study and a Visiting Professor at the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, according to Psyce Central. “Synthetic glucocorticoids mimic the biological reaction when the mother is stressed, so we wanted to see if babies who were exposed to this treatment are affected similarly in terms of mental health outcomes.”

The research also suggests the potential for long-term risks for the child’s mental health, Rodriguez noted, according to Psych Central. “Although this is the largest study, so far, to look at these risks, the number of children in our group who were exposed to glucocorticoids was still relatively small,” Rodriguez said. “More studies will be needed to confirm the findings.”

The study appears in the journal PLOS One.

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