Antibiotics abuse in children could affect brain development, researchers warn

Angela Onwuzoo

Researchers have warned that exposure to antibiotics early in life could alter human brain development in areas responsible for cognitive and emotional functions.

According to the researchers from Rutgers University, USA, there is a need to reduce widespread antibiotic use to prevent neurodevelopment problems.

In the study published in ScienceDaily, the researchers said. 

Penicillin and related medicines (like ampicillin and amoxicillin) are the most widely used antibiotics in children worldwide. 

“The laboratory study suggests that penicillin changes the microbiome – the trillions of beneficial microorganisms that live in and on our bodies – as well as gene expression, which allows cells to respond to its changing environment, in key areas of the developing brain. 

“The findings suggest reducing widespread antibiotic use or using alternatives when possible to prevent neurodevelopment problems.

“In the United States, the average child receives nearly three courses of antibiotics before the age of two. Similar or greater exposure rates occur in many other countries”, the researchers said.

The study, they noted, compared mice that were exposed to low-dose penicillin in utero or immediately after birth to those that were not exposed. 

The researchers found that mice given penicillin experienced substantial changes in their intestinal microbiota and had altered gene expression in the frontal cortex and amygdala, two key areas in the brain responsible for the development of memory as well as fear and stress responses.

“A growing body of evidence links the phenomena in the intestinal tract with signaling to the brain.

“If this pathway is disturbed, it can lead to permanent altering of the brain’s structure and function and possibly lead to neuropsychiatric or neurodegenerative disorders in later childhood or adulthood,” they added.

Lead author and Director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers, Martin Blaser, said, “Our previous work has shown that exposing young animals to antibiotics changes their metabolism and immunity. 

“The third important development in early life involves the brain. This study is preliminary but shows a correlation between altering the microbiome and changes in the brain that should be further explored.”

Blaser noted that early life is a critical period of neurodevelopment.

“In recent decades, there has been a rise in the incidence of childhood neurodevelopmental disorders, including autism, spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and learning disabilities.

“Although increased awareness and diagnosis are likely contributing factors, disruptions in cerebral gene expression early in development also could be responsible”, the author stated.

Senior Registrar in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Alex Ekwueme University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki, Ebonyi State, Dr. Amuche Nwafor, told our correspondent that there was a need for pregnant women to desist from going to patent medicine dealers to buy antibiotics when they are sick.

The gynaecologist warned that the use of antibiotics in pregnancy without a doctor’s prescription has a devastating impact and can cause deformities and jaundice in babies.

Speaking with PUNCH HealthWise, Nwafor said it is cheaper and safer for pregnant women to visit the hospital when they are sick rather than patronising patent medicine dealers.

The physician says that maternal health experts discourage the use of antibiotics in pregnancy because not all of them are safe.

She said, “Generally, we discourage drug use in pregnancy as much as possible. We only use antibiotics in pregnancy when it is extremely necessary. Some antibiotics are not safe during pregnancy. Some of them will affect the foetus negatively. Antibiotics can cause deformity in the baby. It can also affect the bone.

“There are, however, some that are safe. But the problem is that some pregnant women, when they are sick, go to the chemist to buy drugs, not minding the impact on their unborn baby.

“Doctors don’t just give antibiotics. Even when they want to give, they give the safe ones.

“Some antibiotics can affect the bone marrow also. Others can cause jaundice, brain damage and also affect the skin.”

The gynaecologist also noted that antibiotics can cause miscarriages.

In a 2020 study published in BMJ journal, researchers stated that children of mothers who were prescribed macrolide antibiotics during early pregnancy are at an increased risk of major birth defects, particularly heart defects, compared with children of mothers whose doctors prescribed penicillin for.

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