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Mental health risk for children born to parents with fertility problems is 'real but modest'

7 July 2014
Appeared in BioNews 761

Children born to parents with fertility problems are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders, a large-scale population study suggests.

Danish researchers found a 33 percent overall increase in psychiatric disorders - ranging from autism to schizophrenia - in children from parents with fertility issues compared to parents without.

Dr Allan Jensen, an epidemiologist at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of this study, warned that doctors who diagnosed and treated women with fertility problems should be aware of 'the small, but potentially increased risk of psychiatric disorders among the children born to women with fertility problems'.

The researchers examined the medical records of more than 2.4 million children born in Denmark between 1969 and 2006, of whom five percent were born to women with registered fertility problems. They found that these children had a 'real but modest' increase in mental health disorders, and that this risk included both childhood as well as adult onset conditions.

According to the researchers, this figure indicates that 1.9 percent of all psychiatric disorders in Denmark are associated with a parent's fertility.

Despite the large scale of their study, the research group was unable to identify the reason for the correlation. However, they believe that any increase in risk is more likely to stem from the underlying fertility issues than IVF treatment itself.

Dr Jensen explained that 'psychiatric disorders to some degree have a genetic component' and suggested that 'damaged genes coding for psychiatric diseases are overrepresented in women with fertility problems' and could be 'transferred to their offspring'.

However, an indication of fertility problems observed in the mother's medical notes could have related to the fertility of either parent and the researchers did not look specifically at the father's health.

Dr Yacoub Khalaf, consultant gynecologist and director at the Assisted Conception Unit at Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, was sceptical of the study findings, arguing that recent increases in the availability and effectiveness of IVF treatment should have resulted in a corresponding increase in occurrences of psychological conditions - an increase that has not been observed.

He told the Guardian, 'Surely over the years we would have seen an epidemic of mental retardation as a result of fertility treatment, which has never been observed'.

A study published last year analysing 2.5 million Swedish birth records from between 1982 and 2007 demonstrated there was no significant increase of autism in children born after IVF treatments (see BioNews 712).

Even after any possible increase, the absolute risk remains small. Susan Seenan, chief executive at Infertility Network UK, told the Scotsman that 'it is important to keep this in perspective for patients; [...] assisted conception might be the only chance they have of having a baby of their own and it is not something anyone undertakes without serious consideration of all the consequences'.

Dr Jensen added that the 'small, but potential increased risk of psychiatric disorders [...] should always be balanced against the physical and psychological benefits of a pregnancy'.

22 February 2016 - by Ryan Ross 
The use of IVF technologies could be storing up future health problems for children born through the technique, according to an evolutionary biologist...
30 March 2015 - by Dr Charlotte Warren-Gash 
Children conceived with assisted reproductive technology may be twice as likely to develop autism...
3 March 2014 - by Dr Barbara Kramarz 
Children born to fathers who are 45 years old or older are more likely to develop serious mental illness than children born to fathers in their early twenties, a large-scale study comparing siblings suggests...
28 October 2013 - by María Victoria Rivas Llanos 
Sex selection in IVF as a method of avoiding autism has been approved for the first time by health authorities in Western Australia...
8 July 2013 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Children born following IVF have no increased risk of autism but may be at a very small increased risk of intellectual disability, a Swedish study suggests. However, the researchers stress that the overall likelihood of children conceived via IVF having an intellectual impairment remains extremely low...
19 November 2012 - by Dr Nicola Davis 
Infants conceived by IVF are at significantly greater risk of birth defects compared to naturally conceived babies, announced scientists at a conference last month...
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