Over the past several decades, the practice of giving oxytocin (a hormone that facilitates bonding) to pregnant women to induce labor has become more common, but it comes with several risks to the child. These include increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and cognitive impairment. A new study by Freedman et al. presented at the 2014 meeting of the International Society for Bipolar Disorders suggests oxytocin may increase the risk of bipolar disorder as well.
In a sample of 19,000 people, there were 94 cases of bipolar disorder, and birth records revealed that an unexpectedly high number of these cases occurred in people whose mothers had received oxytocin to induce labor, regardless of the duration of the pregnancy. Cognition at ages 3 and 5 was impaired on one measure but not another in those children whose mothers received oxytocin. The researchers concluded that maternal oxytocin to induce labor is a significant risk factor for developing bipolar disorder later in life.
Editor’s Note: Oxytocin appears to take its place among other risk factors for bipolar disorder, which include: prematurity, maternal infection, influenza, the bacterial infection toxoplasmosis, higher insolation (a measure of how powerful radiation from the sun is in a given location), childhood adversity, inflammation (as measured by levels of C-reactive protein), heavy marijuana/THC use, and a family history positive for schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or mood disorder, especially bipolar disorder and especially a bilineal history (illness in both parents).
A study published in the Lancet reports that even mild iodine deficiency during pregnancy can have adverse effects on IQ and cognitive development in the fetus. This occurs because of the deficiency’s effects on thyroid function.
Editor’s Note: Eat fish, drink milk and take a vitamin supplement with 140 to 150mcg of iodine.
Synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as spice, skank, or K2, is not only vastly more potent than the tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in marijuana plants, but it also lacks cannabidiol (CBD), the calming, antipsychotic substance also present in the plants. This makes spice much more likely to induce major psychiatric effects.
New evidence links use of spice during pregnancy to a tragic birth defect, anencephaly, or absence of the cerebral cortex. It can also lead to the later development of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, memory impairment, depression, and aggression.
Effects of THC on gestation may occur as early as two weeks after conception, meaning by the time a woman realizes she is pregnant, the fetus may have been harmed by exposure to the drug.
Other new finding associate use of spice with acute coronary syndrome and the kind of acute kidney injury that can lead to the organ shutting down.
Editor’s Note: It has now been found that synthetic marijuana, or spice, can lead to psychosis, delirium, acute coronary syndrome (heart attack) in young people, and now kidney dysfunction, in addition to causing birth defects if used by pregnant women. Not only is spice made up of more potent THC without the calming effects of CBD, but it is often laced with unknown contaminants, which are likely the cause of the heart and kidney damage.
Smoking regular marijuana is bad enough—it doubles the risk of psychosis and may precipitate the onset of schizophrenia. It may also cause long-lasting effects on cognitive function. Since many states are legalizing marijuana, it is important to know the risks. In any case the risks are much more serious with the synthetic product, and synthetic marijuana should be avoided at all costs.
The risk of having a depressive episode during pregnancy compared to afterward have not often been studied. A 2011 review article by Viguera et al. in the American Journal of Psychiatry compared rates of affective episodes among women with bipolar I and II disorders and recurrent major depressive disorder, both during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Risks were higher for women with bipolar disorder.
Among women with bipolar disorder, 23% experienced mood episodes during the pregnancy, while 52% had an episode in the months after giving birth. Among women with unipolar depression, 4.6% had a mood episode during pregnancy, while 30% did during the postpartum period, which is about double the risk seen in the general population. Depression was the most common type of morbidity the women experienced before and after giving birth.
Risk factors associated with mood episodes during pregnancy included (in descending order): younger age at illness onset, previous postpartum episodes, fewer years of illness, bipolar disorder, fewer children, and not being married. Risk factors associated with postpartum episodes included: younger age at illness onset, illness during pregnancy, bipolar disorder, fewer children, and more education.
Editor’s Note: The risk of postpartum depression increases from 15% in the general population, to 30% among women with unipolar disorder, to 50% in women with bipolar disorder. Special precautions should be taken to monitor and treat depression during and after pregnancy, in all women but particularly in those with a prior history of unipolar or bipolar disorder.
Much has been written about the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants during pregnancy. In a review of 920,620 births in Denmark (1995 to 2008) that Jimenez-Solem published this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry, no link was found between any of the SSRIs used in any trimester and risk of stillbirth or neonatal mortality. The only exception was a possible association of three-trimester exposure to citalopram and neonatal mortality.
Editor’s Note: These new data may be of importance to women considering antidepressant continuation during pregnancy when there is a high risk for a depressive relapse. A maternal depressive episode (like other stressors such as anxiety or experiencing an earthquake) during pregnancy does convey adverse effects to the child, so appropriate evaluation of the risk/benefit ratio or staying on an antidepressant through a pregnancy is important.
Folic acid is often recommended for patients with difficult-to-treat depression and for pregnant women. A recent study suggested that when taken before and in the first weeks of pregnancy, the vitamin supplement can reduce the risk of autism in the child. However, some concern was raised after a 2007 study that suggested a possible link between folic acid and cancer risk. New research indicates that cancer is not a risk of folic acid supplementation.
In a meta-analysis that analyzed data from 13 different trials of folic acid that included a total of over 49,000 patients, no increased risk of cancer was found in patients taking folic acid. The meta-analysis was published this year in the Lancet.
Editor’s Note: In addition to folic acid’s beneficial effects during pregnancy, it can also enhance the effects of antidepressants and mood stabilizers. The dose typically recommended for depression is 1mg for women and 2mg for men.
Fifteen percent of the population has an inefficient form of the enzyme methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR), which converts folate to methylfolate. For treatment of depression in these individuals, l-methylfolate should be used instead of regular folic acid.
In pregnant women, exposure of the fetus to the anticonvulsant valproate (VPA or Depakote) is associated with a variety of serious problems that include congenital malformations, developmental delay, and autism.
The major congenital malformations that can result from valproate exposure include spina bifida, which results in lifelong paralysis of the child’s lower limbs.
Developmental delay resulting from valproate exposure can cause an average loss of 9 IQ points compared to children exposed to other anticonvulsant drugs in utero. The effects appear to be in part dose-related and dependent on the intensity of combination treatment with other agents. These deficits were originally seen in children at 3 years of age and were shown to persist in six-year-olds according to an article by Meador et al. this year in Lancet Neurology.
Now in addition, fetal exposure to valproate has been liked to autism and related disorders in an 11-year longitudinal study published this year in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. A diagnosis of a developmental disorder occurred in 17% of children whose mothers were on valproate as opposed to 2% whose mothers were on carbamazepine and 7% whose mothers were on lamotrigine.
Neurologists are increasingly recommending that all women of childbearing age who are on a treatment regimen including valproate be treated with folic acid and vitamins B6 and B12, in the hopes that these might mitigate valproate’s effects on the fetus in the case of an unplanned pregnancy. The effectiveness of these vitamins has not been directly demonstrated. However, the study by Meador et al. did show that children of mothers who took prenatal folic acid supplements had IQs on average 7 point higher than children whose mothers did not. The benefit was seen only when mothers were already taking folic acid when they became pregnant and was not observed in children of mothers who began taking it after the first trimester.
Women of childbearing age should avoid valproate and if this is not possible, they should carefully protect themselves against an unwanted pregnancy. Women with bipolar disorder are 3.9 times more likely to have unplanned pregnancies than women of similar age in the general population. These data suggest the importance of careful education about birth control in patients with bipolar illness so that pregnancies can be planned for periods of good health and so that appropriate pharmacological measures can be taken.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2012 sampled over one million births in Sweden and suggested that preterm birth (from 32 to 36 weeks) doubled the risk that a child would develop bipolar disorder later in life. Those born even earlier had a sevenfold increased risk for bipolar disorder.
Editor’s Note: A robust research literature indicates that schizophrenia is related to obstetrical and other pre- and perinatal medical problems. Now it seems bipolar disorder may be as well, with some caveats. Low Apgar score (which indicates difficulties at birth) and delayed growth were not found to relate to bipolar risk. Thus something about the shortened preterm development seems to convey the risk. The authors suggest that there may be different types of factors that predispose a person to develop bipolar disorder, and that in some people the illness may have development origins.
These data also fit with observations that only about 50% of patients with bipolar disorder have a positive family history of the illness. Thus, while bipolar disorder does run in families and has a strong genetic basis in many instances, there are many people who develop the illness without having this genetic/familial risk. Very preterm birth appears to be one other contributing risk factor, presumably among many others. Understanding the neurobiological mechanisms occurring before birth that mediate this risk may lead to direct preventive measures to lessen the risk. In the meantime, traditional measures supporting good maternal and fetal health are a good place to start. These include regular prenatal checkups, good nutrition, and prenatal vitamins that include high doses of folic acid.
A study of 85,000 children in Norway that was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that women who took folic acid during pregnancy were 40% less likely to have a child who developed autism.
A summary of the research by National Public Radio explained:
Folic acid is the synthetic version of a B vitamin called folate. It’s found naturally in foods such as spinach, black-eyed peas and rice. Public health officials recommend that women who may become pregnant take at least 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to reduce the chance of having a child with spina bifida.
The folic acid’s effect reduced the most severe cases of autism but did not seem to have an effect on the incidence of more mild forms, such as Asperger syndrome. The benefits were seen in those women who had been taking folic acid for 4 weeks before conception and continued to take the supplement during the first 8 weeks of pregnancy.
An article published by Braun et al. in Pediatrics last year suggests that children who were exposed to higher levels of BPA while in the womb exhibited more anxious and depressed behaviors and poorer emotional control and inhibition at age 3. Braun described the implications of this finding to Medscape Medical News:
“At this point, we don’t know what these findings mean in terms of clinical disorders of behavior,” Joe M. Braun, MSPH, PhD, from the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, told Medscape Medical News. “Future studies will need to determine if BPA exposures are associated with clinical behavior disorders,” he said.
BPA is used in a variety of consumer products, including dental sealants, food/beverage containers and linings, medical equipment, and thermal receipts, such as those from ATM machines. Virtually all people in industrialized nations are exposed to the plasticizer.
“People who are concerned about BPA exposure could decrease or eliminate their consumption of canned or packaged foods; they could also avoid contact with thermal receipts,” Dr. Braun said.