Research at an Israeli university links Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder to a common childhood illness.

Strep throat bacteria

The bacteria responsible for strep throat.

That strep throat infection that keeps many young kids home in bed could trigger brain disorders such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) if left untreated, according to researchers at an Israeli university.

Their conclusion: It is crucial for parents to get prompt medical treatment for children who show signs of strep throat, which include severe and sudden sore throat without cold symptoms; pain or difficulty with swallowing; and fever of higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

Strep can lead to brain dysfunction

Prof. Daphna Joel and a team of researchers from Tel Aviv University’s Department of Psychology, set out to see whether a long-held suspicion of a link between strep and impaired motor and mental function could be proven. It was already well known that untreated childhood strep throat can lead to chronic heart and joint problems.

The bulk of the research was conducted by Joel’s doctoral student, Lior Brimberg, in collaboration with Prof. Madeleine W. Cunningham of the University of Oklahoma. Cunningham is the world’s leading specialist in strep-related heart disease. Joel and Brimberg exposed rats to the strep bacteria, compared them to a strep-free control group, and measured differences in behavior.

As the researchers described at the 13th Congress of the European Federation of Neurological Societies in Italy, the strep-exposed rats developed balance and coordination difficulties, along with compulsive behaviors such as increased and repetitive grooming. These symptoms are typical of OCD, which is characterized by recurrent intense obsessions and/or compulsions that may cause severe discomfort, anxiety and stress.

“We were able to show that [strep] antibodies are binding to receptors in the brain and changing the way certain neurotransmitters operate, leading to brain dysfunction and motor and behavioral symptoms,” Joel reports.

New approaches to diagnosis and treatment

The study could form the basis for finding new ways to diagnose and treat OCD, which affects up to two percent of all children and adolescents in the United States. Strep-induced OCD is of particular concern in the developing world, where the bacterial infection is rarely treated adequately, Joel adds.

The findings also provide a promising education platform for preventing OCD and other related disorders from ever developing, despite a still incomplete understanding of the mechanism underlying the link between strep and brain dysfunction in children.

“Almost all of us, even very young children, have been exposed to the bacterium at one time or another,” says Joel, “But childhood seems to provide a distinct window of opportunity for the disorder to take root through strep infection.”