Antibiotics Given to Newborns Could Cause Behavioral Problems


What is meant to protect has the potential to harm when it comes to antibiotics for newborns. According to new research, there is evidence that suggests lasting effects on behavior when babies are given antibiotics at birth.

When a child is born, they are often susceptible to infection and illness. Doctors often can recommend antibiotics to treat common childhood ailments such as whooping cough, fever, or a variety of infections.

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However, a recent study published in Nature Communications shows that when antibiotics are introduced to newborn mice, there is a distinct effect that occurs in the brain, causing behavioral changes such as aggression and impaired social behavior.

The researchers used mice to test their hypothesis, giving low doses of penicillin to them before and after birth. After six weeks, the mice were tested for behavioral patterns and brain development. Of the 72 mice, the ones given penicillin were, on the whole, less social and more aggressive. The brains of the mice given the doses had thinner blood-brain barriers and heightened production of cytokines, which can interfere with the communications between cells. Forty-two percent of the exposed mice were classified as “feisty,” while only nine percent of the control group fell into this category.

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The penicillin given to the mice serves the same function as other antibiotics; it is made to kill bacteria in the body. However, not all bacteria is bad. There are certain healthy bacteria in the gut that promote immune function, metabolic processes and digestion. It has been called “the forgotten organ” and can be improved through the use of probiotics. There has been research into the connection between gut health and brain health, hailed as the “gut-brain axis.” The existence of a connection has been proven; however, a cause-and-effect relationship has yet to be discovered.

In the study on mice, it was found that by supplying the exposed mice with a probiotic, they were able to counteract the behavioral effect of the antibiotic. This shows the importance of healthy bacteria at an early age.

“These results warrant further studies on the potential role of early-life antibiotic use in the development of neuropsychiatric disorders, and the possible attenuation of these by beneficial bacteria,” said the authors, a team from McMaster University in Canada.

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However, as this experiment was only conducted in mice, there is yet to be data published on the effects of antibiotics on humans. Nonetheless, the authors conclude that this is a start to further research on the importance of gut bacteria in newborns and babies.

“While all these data obtained in rodents cannot be directly extrapolated to humans,” they said, “they add support to the necessity to carefully consider the potential negative long-term effects of early-life AB [antibiotic] exposure.”

The study also could not separate the effects of antibiotics before or after birth to see if dosage at one time was more effective than the other. Since the penicillin was given at both times, it could have had more effect at one stage rather than the other, or affected the mother’s microbe, which was then passed on to the fetus. Further research will examine specific exposure.