‘Bad’ cholesterol in newborn blood could signal mental health at 5

Researchers believe they have found a correlation between "bad" cholesterol in newborn cord blood and the child’s mental health development five years later. (Credit: Getty Images)

“Bad” cholesterol and fat levels in a newborn’s blood can reliably predict the child’s psychological and social health five years later, according to a new study.

If confirmed, the discovery could point to new ways for monitoring or treating mental illnesses, such as depression, early on in childhood.

The results correlated lipids in a newborn’s umbilical cord blood with teacher ratings of children’s mental health at about five years of age.

Children born with more “bad” cholesterol and triglycerides (a type of fat, or lipid that circulates in the blood) were more likely to receive poor teacher ratings than their peers with higher levels of “good” cholesterol and lower triglyceride levels.

Bad cholesterol and fat as early predictors

Ian Gotlib, professor of psychology at Stanford University and senior author of the paper in Psychological Science, says the next step is to find out whether the role of fat is merely correlative, and thus serving as a marker of the root biological processes at work, or actually causative, and therefore a promising target for therapeutic interventions such as dietary changes or pharmaceuticals. “Our study is a launch pad into so many other lines of research. We are excited to see where this goes.”

“It is surprising that from so early in life, these easily accessible and commonly examined markers of blood lipid levels have this predictive correlation for future psychological outcomes,” says lead author Erika Manczak, who began the work as a postdoctoral fellow in Gotlib’s lab and is now an assistant professor of psychology at Denver University.

“What our study showed is really an optimistic finding because lipids are relatively easy to manipulate and influence.”

The scientists don’t yet know how fat levels might be related to the observed psychological behavior in children. But the findings dovetail with growing evidence concerning the influence of fat on immune system function.

In adults, some studies have found a role for the immune system in maintaining psychological wellbeing. By extending this investigation into children, the study begins to reveal factors related to the onset of emotional difficulties and mental illnesses, which are on the rise globally.

“The prevalence of depression is increasing with every generation at every age, along with suicide attempts and completions,” Gotlib says. “Over the last few decades, we’ve done a wonderful job of reducing the rates and impact of many physical disorders. Yet we’ve done poorly in reducing mental disorders. Finding potential new early predictors of mental health, as this study has, is therefore a critical step forward.”

Later teacher ratings

Researchers analyzed a dataset, which the Born in Bradford project compiled. Based in Bradford, the sixth-largest city in the United Kingdom, the project follows children born between March 2007 and December 2010, as well as their parents, to learn more about common childhood illnesses along with mental and social development.

Manczak and Gotlib examined lipid profiles for 1,369 newborns, noting levels of triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein (HDL, also known as “good” cholesterol), and very low-density lipoprotein (VLDL, also known as “bad” cholesterol).

They then compared these cholesterol and triglyceride levels with teachers’ psychological evaluations of students at the end of the UK equivalent of kindergarten.

The teachers rated children’s competence in emotion regulation, self-awareness, and interpersonal relationships. The findings indicate that kids with the more favorable psychological indicators had higher HDL and lower VLDL or triglycerides at birth than children who scored lower in these traits.

Importantly, this correlation was consistent even in people of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, which suggests that household income, access to health care, diet, and other social factors do not underlie the relation between blood markers and psychological indicators.

The researchers also ruled out the children’s general physical health (assessed by parents at age three), the children’s body mass index at approximately the time of the teacher evaluations, placement in special education classes, the health of mothers prior to and during pregnancy, including any history of depression and whether the mother took prenatal vitamins, as factors that could explain the teachers’ assessments.

What’s the connection?

“The fact that the only solid predictor for the Born in Bradford children’s psychosocial competency assessment scores was their fetal lipid levels really argues in favor of a connection between the two,” Manczak says. “Now we need to find out what exactly this connection may be.”

The researchers suggest one explanation for these results could be that unfavorable lipid levels contribute to immune system dysfunction, resulting in bodily inflammation. The molecules involved in inflammation can cross into the brain, influencing fetal and childhood development as well as long-term psychological wellbeing and, at least in the shorter term, mood, motivation, and outlook.

“Bad cholesterol might promote greater inflammation across the body that influences the way children’s brains are developing or acting,” Manczak says. “That might ultimately be enough to nudge them on certain psychological trajectories.”

Source: Stanford University