MS Does Not Raise Woman’s Risk of Child With Brain Disorder, Study Suggests

Somi Igbene, PhD avatar

by Somi Igbene, PhD |

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Children born to women with multiple sclerosis (MS) are not at a higher risk of brain disorders than are children whose mothers don’t have this disease, an observational study reported.

However, children born to women with a family with a history of other autoimmune conditions and brain disorders, or whose mothers are taking MS treatments during a pregnancy’s initial weeks could be a higher risk of developing such disorders in early childhood and adolescence.

The study “Maternal multiple sclerosis is not a risk factor for neurodevelopmental disorders in offspring” was published in the Multiple Sclerosis Journal – Experimental, Translational and Clinical.

Brain disorders, also called childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, include specific learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. They often arise in childhood and vary in severity.

Although the causes of brain disorders are unclear, research shows that mothers with autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus are at a higher risk of having children with these disorders, particularly if their conditions worsen during pregnancy.

A woman’s body produces immune cells that protect their babies during pregnancy. However, if a woman contracts an infection or has autoimmune conditions that flare during pregnancy, those immune cells can produce inflammatory proteins that could affect a developing baby’s brain.

MS is an autoimmune disorder, but it is not known whether MS patients are at an increased risk of having children with neurodevelopmental disorders.

A team of researchers in Italy investigated the prevalence of brain disorders in children born to women with and without MS (a control group). They also studied the mother’s family history of autoimmune conditions and brain disorders, and whether MS therapy use during pregnancy affected a child’s neurodevelopment.

Researchers analyzed data from questionnaires, completed between January and December 2019 at the referral MS Centre for Northern Sardinia, from a total of 261 mothers (206 with MS and 55 without MS) with a total of 466 children (361 born to MS patients, and 105 to controls).

Of these 466 children, brain disorders were found in 27 whose mothers had MS (7.5%), and in 78 born to women without MS (74.3%). 

While researchers found no link between a mother’s MS diagnosis and a brain disorder risk in their children, evidence showed that women using immunosuppressive MS treatments in the first trimester of pregnancy — generally defined as conception through week 12 — were significantly more likely to have children with brain disorders.

“We suggest that ongoing immunomodulating MS therapies during the first weeks of gestation, and not MS itself, may interfere with the typical neurodevelopment trajectory of offspring,” the researchers wrote. “A larger, more accurate and longitudinal study should be carried out to definitely address this particular point.”

Likewise, children born to women with a family history of brain disorders and autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis were more likely to develop neurodevelopmental disorders like autism in their childhood or teenage years.

“We showed that children from MS mothers, even considering the mother’s age at gestation, are not at higher risk of being diagnosed with [neurodevelopmental disorders] in early childhood or later in life. On the contrary, a significant risk factor lies in the familiarity for [neurodevelopmental disorders] in close members of the same family,” the researchers wrote.

Limitations to this study’s findings, the researchers said, included the retrospective (past events) nature of its analyzed data, based on questionnaires completed by the participants; and the unequal sizes of the groups being compared. Further studies are needed to confirm these findings, they emphasized.

Still, based on the results, the scientists concluded that “in contrast with other autoimmune diseases, maternal MS seems not to represent a risk factor for a [neurodevelopmental disorder] diagnosis in childhood or adolescence,” they wrote. “We suggest that the intrinsic organ-specific nature of MS does not … influence fetal neurodevelopment.”

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