Maternal migraine increases a child’s risk of a mental disorder

Disease and treatment 24. aug 2021 2 min Ph.D., Associate professor, MSc, PhD Jiong Li Written by Kristian Sjøgren

According to a major new study in Denmark, women having migraine before giving birth can affect their child’s future mental health. The association is quite clear, but researchers do not yet know whether this is caused by factors related to fetal brain development or other factors as the child grows up.

A major new registry study in Denmark shows that a child has a significantly increased risk of being diagnosed with a mental health problem later in life if the mother was diagnosed with migraine before giving birth. The study also indicates that the risk of developing some types of mental disorder is higher than that of other types.

These results are unique because this is the first time that researchers have identified a clear association between a mother’s migraine and a child’s risk of developing mental health problems. The research is also unique because Denmark is one of the few countries in which this type of survey can be based on an entire population.

“Many other diseases and disorders have been linked to an increased risk of a child developing mental health problems, but migraine had not been previously studied. We found a very clear association, and this is especially interesting because migraine is so common. Among women of reproductive age, 2.5% have been diagnosed with migraine – plus those with undiagnosed migraine. Thus, mothers having migraine can affect many children and increase their risk of developing a mental disorder,” explains a researcher behind the study, Jiong Li, Associate Professor, Department of Clinical Medicine and Department of Clinical Epidemiology, Aarhus University.

The research has been published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

Study included more than 2 million mothers and children

The researchers reviewed registry data for all women who gave birth to a live-born singleton in Denmark during 1978–2012, accounting for 2,069,785 births.

The researchers used Denmark’s health registries, including the Danish National Patient Registry and the Danish National Prescription Registry, to identify all the women diagnosed with migraine before childbirth.

The researchers then followed the children until the date of the first diagnosis of any mental disorder.

Significantly greater risk of mental health problems among the children of mothers with migraine

The results are stunning.

· If the mother was diagnosed with migraine before giving birth, this increased the child’s risk of having a mental disorder by 26%, including across all age groups from early childhood to early adulthood.

· The researchers examined the risk of specific mental disorders and found that the risk of developing mood disorders, including depression, increased by 53% among children born to mothers with migraine.

· The risk of developing neurotic, stress-related and somatoform disorders increased by 44%.

· The risk of specific personality disorders increased by 47%.

· The risk of developing intellectual disability or an eating disorder was not associated with maternal migraine.

· The children of mothers with migraine and comorbid mental disorders had the highest risk.

“In addition, we examined a cohort born in 1978 and onwards. Thus, many of those born within the past 15–20 years have not yet had mental health problems but may in the future,” says Jiong Li.

Association may be caused by problems during fetal brain development

Although the study is merely an association study designed to find correlations, it makes sense to wonder why the children of mothers with migraine have a greater risk of developing mental health problems.

Jiong Li says that the researchers examined the possibility of a genetic link between the two types of diagnoses, but even when they filtered the data for genetics, the association was still clear.

This leads the researchers to speculate that other factors may affect the association, including possible risk factors during pregnancy.

According to Jiong Li, a mother with migraine might be more stressed during pregnancy, which might affect the brain development of her unborn child.

“Other studies have indicated that mothers with increased stress during pregnancy have an increased risk of having children with a mental disorder,” explains Jiong Li.

Another possibility is that women diagnosed with migraine before giving birth may have increased inflammation. Previous research has suggested that inflammation may affect whether the unborn child later develops a mental disorder.

Finally, women with migraines could also be challenged in taking care of their children in early childhood, and this may affect the children’s risk of developing a mental disorder later in life.

“This is all speculative, and future research may explore the biological context in greater depth. So far, we can only say that there is an association, and it appears to quite strong,” concludes Jiong Li.

Maternal migraine and the risk of psychiatric disorders in offspring: a population-based cohort study” has been published in Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. In 2018, the Novo Nordisk Foundation awarded a grant to Jiong Li for the project Prenatal Parental Diabetes and Long-term Health Outcomes in Offspring: a Multinational Register-based Study in Five Nordic Countries.

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