Testing infants’ blood may predict psychological health, study finds

Many of us know that a lipid panel — a simple blood test that measures the levels of cholesterol and fats in the blood — can help predict the risk of heart disease in adults.

What may be more surprising is a Stanford study has now shown that the levels of cholesterol and fat in an infant’s blood can predict that child’s social and emotional development, as recently reported in Psychological Science.

The researchers analyzed data compiled by the Born in Bradford project, which followed children born in the United Kingdom city of Bradford between March 2007 and December 2010.

The Stanford team examined the levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDL) known as “good cholesterol,” very-low-density lipoproteins (VLDL) known as “bad cholesterol” and triglycerides in the umbilical cord blood of 1,369 newborns. Unlike the placenta, all the cells in cord blood are from the fetus.

They then correlated the blood results with the children’s psychological status — including their self-awareness, emotional regulation and interpersonal relationships — as measured five years later by their teachers using standard tests.

The study showed children born with higher levels of HDL, lower levels of VLDL and lower levels of triglycerides were more likely to receive higher teacher ratings than their peers with lower “good cholesterol.”

“It is surprising that from early in life, these easily accessible and commonly examined markers of blood lipid levels have this predictive correlation for future psychological outcomes,” said Erika Manczak, PhD, in a recent Stanford news release. “What our study showed is really an optimistic finding because lipids are relatively easy to manipulate and influence.” Manczak participated in the research as a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at Stanford and is now an assistant professor of psychology at Denver University.

The study, so far, has demonstrated only correlations, not causations. But the findings were consistent across different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds and both sexes, where the study participants were 38% white British, 51% Pakistani British, 11% of other ethnicity and 52% male. The associations also held regardless of the mother’s psychological or physical health during pregnancy or the children’s physical health, body mass or neurodevelopmental status.

“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 said in the release. “Now we need to find out what exactly this connection may be.”

In the paper, the authors suggest some potential explanations, noting that lipids are involved in many biological processes important to psychological health, such as brain development and inflammation. If future work confirms their findings, they hope lipid screening can help identify and guide treatment for children who are prone to mental illnesses.

Photo by ThorstenF

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Author: Jennifer Huber

As a Ph.D. physicist and research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, I gained extensive experience in medical imaging and technical writing. Now, I am a full-time freelance science writer and science-writing instructor. I've lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of my life and I frequently enjoy the eclectic cultural, culinary and outdoor activities available in the area.

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