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Childhood Strep Throat Linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


Strep throat is one of the most common ailments of childhood, and researchers have now found that it has the potential to lead to obsessive compulsive disorder if left untreated. This discovery could eventually help in the development of new ways to treat obsessive compulsive disorder.

Strep throat is a common and potentially dangerous condition

Strep throat is a condition that can be caused by any one of several streptococcal bacteria. It most often affects children between the ages of 5 and 16 years, but is not uncommon in adults.

Although the infection can go away on its own within 3 to 7 days, it is recommended to treat strep throat with antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of the body, which can result in problems with a child’s heart, brain, or joints. If the bacterial infection affects the brain, it has long been suspected that it can result in obsessive compulsive disorder, a link now discovered by scientists at Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology.

Under direction of Professor Daphna Joel, a group of researchers, including PhD student Lior Brimberg and Professor Madelaine W. Cunningham of the University of Oklahoma, who is the world’s leading specialist in strep-related heart disease, there is now scientific proof that strep infection can lead to obsessive compulsive disorder and other brain disorders.

The scientists developed an animal model in which they exposed one group of rats to strep bacteria and compared that group with a control group that was strep-free. Rats exposed to the bacteria developed a strep antibody that appeared in their brain, as well as balance and coordination problems and compulsive behaviors such as repetitive grooming activities.

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The study’s authors also discovered that the strep antibodies bound to dopamine receptors in the brain, which was a significant finding. “We were able to show that these antibodies are bind to receptors in the brain and changing the way certain neurotransmitters operate, leading to brain dysfunction and motor and behavioral symptoms,” noted Joel.

Another clue to a link between strep throat and obsessive compulsive disorder is an infection called PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections). It is known that a strep bacterial infection (e.g., strep throat, scarlet fever) can trigger an immune reaction that worsens symptoms in children who already have obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or Tourette’s syndrome. The increased severity of symptoms usually resolves within a few weeks to months.

According to W. Douglas Tynan, PhD, chief psychologist, Nemours Health and Prevention Division Programs, AI duPont Hospital for Children, obsessive compulsive disorder has a six-month prevalence of about 1 in 200 children and adolescents in the United States, while the prevalence at any time during children is 2 to 3 percent. Among adults with OCD, research indicates that one third to one half developed the disorder during childhood.

Unfortunately, many children and adolescents do not receive a diagnosis or treatment for the disorder, which is characterized by intense obsessions and/or compulsions such as repetitive hand washing, counting to the same number again and again, and the need to keep checking things repeatedly. These and other obsessions and compulsions can have a dramatic and negative impact on children’s lives, causing anxiety, stress, and difficulties with everyday functioning.

Joel emphasized that it is important for parents to recognize signs and symptoms of strep throat and make sure their children are treated promptly with antibiotics to help prevent spread of the infection and the possibility of obsessive compulsive disorder and other brain disorders.

American Friends of Tel Aviv University