Rheumatoid Arthritis and Risk of Childhood Epilepsy

Mother and infant
Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Children of women with epilepsy have an increased risk of developing epilepsy themselves due to genetic factors. This risk is small (less than 5% of children) but is greater than the risk for children of a mother who does not have epilepsy (less than 2%). 

Recent research has found that children are also at higher risk of developing epilepsy if their mother has an autoimmune disorder such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA)

The Study

Rom AL, Wu CS, Olsen J, et al. Parental rheumatoid arthritis and childhood epilepsy: A nationwide cohort study. Neurology 2016; 87:2510–2516

  • A nationwide study in Denmark included all 1,917,723 children born as single births (i.e., no twins triplets, etc.) between 1997 and 2008. These children were followed for an average of 16 years.
  • The study found that children born to mothers with active RA at the time of pregnancy had a 90% increased risk of developing early childhood epilepsy compared to unexposed children.
  • Children born to mothers with preclinical RA (i.e., the mothers were not yet diagnosed with RA during the pregnancy, but were diagnosed afterwards) had a 26% increased risk of early childhood epilepsy.
  • There was no increase in risk of epilepsy for children whose fathers had RA. This suggests it is not a simple genetic effect.
  • There was no increase in risk of epilepsy developing in adolescence or adulthood for children born to mothers with clinical or preclinical RA.
  • Study authors suggest that there may be changes to a baby’s developing brain if they are exposed to the mother's autoantibodies during pregnancy.
  • More research is being done on the link between autoimmune conditions (RA, type 1 diabetes, lupus, ulcerative colitis) and some types of epilepsy. 

See also:

Ong M-S, Kohane I, Cai T, Gorman MP, Mandl K. Population-Level Evidence for an Autoimmune Etiology of Epilepsy. JAMA Neurology. 2014;71(5):569-574.

Authored by: Kristine Ziemba MD, PhD | Gender Issues Editor on 1/2017

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