A new study finds no greater risk for cognitive problems among children conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF). In fact, IVF children tend to show stronger cognitive development between the ages of three and five.
The new findings, published in the journal Human Reproduction, are significant because artificially conceived babies are more likely to be part of a multiple birth or have low birth weight; factors which raise the risk for developmental problems.
In fact, some previous studies have suggested that assisted reproductive treatments can harm a child’s cognitive abilities.
The new study, however, found that IVF babies tend to have strong family backgrounds which may “override” these potential negative health issues. IVF parents tend to be older, more educated and of higher socioeconomic status than parents who have naturally conceived children.
Researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed the data of thousands of UK children who had been conceived with IVF, including intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), a treatment used for low sperm count.
The children underwent cognitive testing every few years until the age of 11. Their scores were compared with those of children who had been naturally conceived.
On average, the parents of IVF children were four to five years older than parents of naturally conceived children. They were also more likely to have a higher income and belong to a higher social class. IVF mothers more likely to be highly educated and employed than mothers of naturally conceived babies.
The study notes that these factors are “consistent and statistically significant” and highlights that they are widely accepted as being linked with children with higher cognitive abilities in the early years.
“The findings suggest that the positive effect of the family background of children conceived through artificial reproduction techniques ‘overrides’ the risks of related poor health impairing their cognitive ability,” said Professor Melinda Mills from the Department of Sociology.
“Although artificially conceived babies have a higher risk of being born prematurely or as a multiple birth, we have found they also have parents who are older, better educated and from a higher income bracket.
“These are all factors linked with better outcomes for children. What is significant is that this positive effect is over the long term up to the age of 11. The findings support other studies showing that on balance such fertility treatments do not impair a child’s higher thinking skills.”
To date, results on the long-term effects on IVF children have been mixed. Some studies suggest an increased risk of damage to their behavioral, social, emotional and cognitive development, as well as mental disorders or physical problems such as low birth weight and premature delivery.
In contrast, a series of systematic reviews concluded that there were no developmental differences once the baby was a few weeks old. Other studies draw similar conclusions to the Oxford study, showing not only comparable but higher mental health and social development in IVF children.
“The strong desire and considerable psychological and financial effort involved in having a child through artificial conception treatments undoubtedly contributes to more attentive parenting,” said lead author Anna Barbuscia.
“Parents may perceive their children as more fragile but once past the period of greatest risk, their parenting style may change to become more like other parents. This might account for the fact that the gap in higher cognitive ability has closed by the time both groups of children had reached the age of 11 with only slightly better scores for artificially conceived children at this later stage.”
Source: University of Oxford