New research suggests that steroid injections given to pregnant women may increase the risk that their children will suffer negative mental health outcomes later in life.
European researchers published a study in the science journal PLOS One on November 22, indicating that they have found a link between the use of glucocorticoids, a family of steroids, and an impact on the brain development of children. The link could affect the child’s long-term mental health.
The research looked at data from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort and compared data on mental health of children at eight years old and at 16 years of age.
While the steroids are given to expecting mothers to increase the development of their unborn children’s lungs, researchers found that a correlation between the use of glucocorticoids and an increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Children whose mothers were given the steroids were more likely to be assessed with ADHD later in childhood.
Many believe genetics and environmental factors play a strong role in the development of ADHD, which is a disorder that makes it difficult for children and adults to focus or make executive decisions, leading to restlessness and impulse control. However, there have also been signs that ADHD is linked to stress during pregnancy. Cortisol, the natural steroid that aids in lung development, has also been linked to stress, which suggests a possible mechanism linking steroid use to ADHD.
According to the CDC, as of 2007 5.4 million children ages 4 to 17 were diagnosed with ADHD, widening the risk group with boys being 2.8 times more likely to take medication for ADHD than girls.
A 2009 report revealed Ritalin and other ADHD medications may be linked to fatal heart problems in children. The study found ADHD drugs increased a child’s risk of sudden death due to heart problems, such as sudden cardiac events. The FDA warned parents of the possible side effects of these medications, but still cautioned them not to stop taking the drugs.
However, a more recent study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2011 took an in depth look at the effects of many ADHD drugs. The researchers found there was no heightened risk of sudden death in children. A followup study funded by the FDA concurred with the findings of the 2011 study, showing children taking ADHD drugs did not suffer heart attacks, strokes or sudden death at higher rates than children not taking the drugs.
ADHD drugs are used by 3.3 million American children under the age of 20.