Is iron deficiency causing psychiatric disorders in kids?

A new study, authored by Taiwanese researcher Dr. Ya-Mei Bai, links iron deficiency anemia (IDA) with several psychiatric conditions – including major depression, bipolar disorder, attention deficit disorder and autism.

The study reviewed data maintained in the Taiwan National Insurance Database from nearly 15,000 children and adolescents.  Among those with low iron levels, the risk of being diagnosed with bipolar disorder was 580 percent higher than those with normal iron levels.  The increased risk associated with low iron and major depression was 234 percent. Those with low iron had a risk of developing attention deficit disorder that was 167 percent greater than those with normal iron levels.  And autism was 308 percent more prevalent in those with low iron levels.

While this study does not mean that low iron in children and adolescents causes these psychiatric disorders, it clearly means that any young person (and probably anyone of any age) suffering with a psychiatric disorder should have his or her serum iron levels checked.

Iron is known to be critical for brain development and function.  For one thing, it plays a role in the formation of myelin.  Myelin is the “insulation” that surrounds nerve cells and allows electrical conduction to proceed economically down their long axons that reach out to other nerve cells and to muscle.  Multiple sclerosis is a disorder in which muscle weakness (and mood problems) result from an inability to maintain these myelin sheathes around nerve cells.

Iron is also necessary for the proper function of the brain’s chemical messenger systems—including those that regulate serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.  These chemicals are involved in mood, thought and perception, as well.

Bai’s study does not mean that iron supplementation will prevent these conditions in some or all of those who have both iron deficiency and psychiatric disorders.  But a study that looks at that possibility should certainly be undertaken.

For now, the Taiwanese data mean that all children should be tested for iron-deficiency anemia and have that deficiency corrected as early as possible.  For those young people afflicted with psychiatric disorders who turn out to be iron deficient, doctors should correct those deficiencies and then see whether other treatments –such as antidepressants – remain necessary.