Jun 19, 2013
As if mothers-to-be don’t have enough to be cautious about, new research shows that catching the flu during pregnancy may increase a child’s risk of developing bipolar disorder later in life, according to a study published online in early May in JAMA Psychiatry.
Bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood that range from the lows of depression to the highs of mania. This can affect energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. While previous studies have revealed a link between flu infection and schizophrenia, this is the first to reveal a connection between maternal flu and bipolar disorder.
This doesn’t mean pregnant women should become overly paranoid about getting sick, said Elaine Brown, MD, a Montana-based ob/gyn and expert in MedHelp’s pregnancy, women’s health, birth control and fertility/infertility forums. But it’s a good idea to get the flu vaccine and avoid high-risk situations, such as the emergency room during flu season. “I believe the benefits of the vaccine seem to out weigh the risks,” she said.
In this particular study, researchers recruited more than 19,000 pregnant women between 1959 and 1966, and collected data on influenza infection. From 1981 to 2010, the team tracked cases of bipolar disorder in these women’s children. While researchers admitted the sample size was not very large, they discovered 92 cases in which offspring developed bipolar disorder.
Authors of the study concluded that women who are exposed to the flu during pregnancy have four times the risk of their child developing bipolar disorder. According to researchers, this risk is slightly higher during the second or third trimesters. Flu exposure was also linked to a nearly sixfold increase in a sub-type of bipolar disorder described in the study as having psychotic features.
Brown is skeptical about the connection between flu and bipolar disorder, because both are very common. However, she thinks the link between the subtype of bipolar disorder with psychotic features and flu in pregnancy is noteworthy, because it is less common and the diagnosis is based on objective rather than subjective criteria. Overall, Brown said more research is needed on the subject.
Using objective rather than subjective methods for visualizing how the brain functions might make diagnosing mental illness easier in the future, she said. “It will be easier to postulate how a virus, such as the flu virus might affect the development of the fetal brain and result in bipolar disorder,” she said. “This will make studies such as this one easier to believe or disbelieve.”
Currently there is no sure way to prevent bipolar disorder, but getting the flu shot might be a way to prevent your child from developing this illness later in life. Other risk factors for bipolar disorder include: having a blood relative with the disorder, periods of high stress, drug or alcohol abuse or major life changes.
How important do you think it is for mothers to get the flu vaccine? Please share your comments!