IVF babies face greater risk of mental illness

New study says danger is 'real but modest'. Picture: Jon Savage
New study says danger is 'real but modest'. Picture: Jon Savage
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BABIES conceived through fertility treatments are a third more likely to suffer from psychiatric problems than children born naturally, a major study has concluded.

Although the increased risk was described as “modest”, researchers found the problems persisted throughout childhood into adulthood.

The results suggest the risk was related to the mother’s genes rather than any fertility treatments such as IVF, warning that genes which could cause psychiatric diseases may be more common in women with fertility problems.

The latest figures released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority showed that 47,000 women received IVF treatment in 2011 in the UK, and added the number undergoing the procedure has continued to rise.

The University of Copenhagen study was the first large-scale research that compared mental disorders such as schizophrenia or autism in children born naturally and those born to mothers who had fertility treatments.

More than five million babies have been born worldwide as a result of IVF treatment since the birth of the first “test tube baby”, Louise Brown, in 1978. The service was extended on the NHS in Scotland last year, granting women under 40 two rounds of IVF on the NHS and those aged between 40 and 42 one round.

Strict guidelines mean that the treatment is only offered to those who are not obese, where neither partner smokes and neither drinks alcohol before or during treatment.

The academic study looked at a total of 2,430,826 children, five per cent of whom were born to women with registered fertility problems, born between 1969 and 2006 and whether there were any reported psychiatric disorders. It found that 170,240 children were admitted to hospital for a psychiatric disorder, but children born to mothers with fertility problems had a 33 per cent greater overall risk of any defined psychiatric disorders.

Researchers said the findings were “statistically significant” for schizophrenia and psychoses, affective disorders, anxiety and other neurotic disorders, mental and behavioural syndromes including eating disorders, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Dr Allan Jensen said doctors involved in the diagnosis and treatment of 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.”

Dr Jensen said his results, based on a 33 per cent overall increased risk of psychiatric disorders in children born to women with fertility problems and on the proportion of children born in Denmark following fertility treatment, suggests that 1.9 per cent of all diagnosed psychiatric disorders in Denmark are associated with the mother’s infertility. He said: “In my opinion this figure supports our interpretation of the results – that the increased risk is real but modest.”

He added that the study could not establish if the increased risk was associated to the mother’s infertility – whether genetic or biological – or to the treatment.

He said: “The exact mechanisms behind the observed increase in risk are still unknown but it is generally believed that underlying infertility has a more important role in adverse effects in the offspring than the treatment procedures. It is known, for example, that psychiatric disorders to some degree have a genetic component. ”

Susan Seenan, chief executive at Infertility Network UK, said: “It is important to keep this in perspective for patients; for many thousands of couples in the UK today, 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.”

The study was presented at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Munich.