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Study Ties Steroid Injections for Preterm Babies to Mental Health Risk

Update Date: Nov 22, 2013 05:00 PM EST

When babies are born premature, which is before week 37, a lot of health complications could arise. Since these babies are born earlier than expected, their organs might not have fully developed. In these cases, the babies are usually given an infusion of glucocorticoids before birth, which help the lungs mature faster. In a new study, researchers are reporting that these glucocorticoids might increase a child's risk of mental health illnesses, such as attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD).

"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," senior author Alina Rodriguez said. Rodriguez is a visiting professor at the School of Public Health at Imperial College London. "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 team from Imperial College London and Finland's University of Oulu compared 37 children who received infusions of glucocorticoids in the womb before birth to 185 children who were not exposed to the synthetic glucocorticoids. The team also reviewed data on 6079 children. The data on the children came from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort, which recruited women in 1985 to 1986. At that time, the women were starting their pregnancies.

The researchers found that children who had the treatment tended to have lower scores on tests that measured general mental health. These tests were conducted when the children were eight-years-old and then later at 16-years-old. These children were also more likely to have symptoms tied to ADHD.

"This study suggests there may also be long-term risks for the child's mental health. 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. More studies will be needed to confirm the findings," Rodriguez said. "We would like to reassure parents that in light of all available evidence to date, the benefits of steroid treatment on immediate infant health and survival are well-established and outweigh any possible risk of long-term behavioral/emotional difficulties. Parents who are concerned that their child may be affected by behavioral or emotional difficulties should in the first instance contact their GP for advice."

The study was published in PLOS ONE.

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