Brain Health

Eczema Can Cause Learning and Memory Issues in Some Kids

If you’re the parent of a child with eczema, you’ll want to take note of a new study that found that children with atopic dermatitis were more likely to experience difficulties with learning and memory compared to those without the disease. However, these associations were primarily limited to children with neurodevelopmental comorbidities.

Past Research on Eczema

Before delving into the new research, here are a few quick facts findings about children with eczema:

• 15% to 20% of children worldwide have eczema.

• Past studies have shown that children with eczema have an increased risk for other conditions, such as asthma, food allergies, and skin infections.

• Eczemain children has been linked to a higher incidence of neurodevelopmental conditions, such as ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and learning disabilities.

The Research

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine looked at data from more than 69 million children 17 and under from the 2021 U.S. National Health Interview Survey without intellectual disability or autism. Approximately 13% (9 million+) had eczema, based on a parent or adult caregiver’s reporting indicating either a current diagnosis of eczema or a previous medical confirmation by a health care professional.

The scientists discovered that kids with eczema had a two-fold to three-fold greater risk of memory difficulties if they also had a neurodevelopmental disorders, such as ADHD or learning disabilities.

“In some ways, we were not completely surprised because it makes intuitive sense that children who have known diagnoses of ADHD or learning disabilities might be more likely to exhibit symptoms of cognitive impairment than children without these conditions,” says lead author of the study and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine Assistant Professor of Dermatology, Dr. Joy Wan. “However, what we also observed was an interaction between atopic dermatitis and these neurodevelopmental conditions for memory impairment, which suggests that they may have additive effects on cognitive dysfunction. In other words, among only children with ADHD or learning disability, just having atopic dermatitis alone was associated with two-fold to three-fold higher odds of memory difficulties than not having atopic dermatitis.”

Study Limitations

Because the data source didn’t include any information about atopic dermatitis severity or age of onset, more research is needed to understand how cognitive impairment risk may vary with those factors.

“Additionally, we are investigating other risk factors—for example, sleep or comorbid mood symptoms—that might mediate the relationship between atopic dermatitis and cognitive impairment,” says Dr. Wan, “particularly among children with known neurodevelopmental disorders.”

According to Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology and Pediatrics Dr. Peter Lio, who was not involved in the study, the connection between atopic dermatitis and some developmental and cognitive issues has been known for quite some time, although more research is needed as to why.

“Importantly, it’s not entirely clear why this correlation occurs,” says Dr. Lio. “It may have to do with the disease itself causing itch and affecting sleep, which certainly have a powerful impact on the ability to focus and learn. … Is this an independent correlation or can we really identify factors that are driving it, such as that we can begin to develop treatments plans to help prevent this.”

So what does this mean for parents of kids with eczema? Essentially, that evaluation for cognitive impairment in children with atopic dermatitis should be prioritized among those with comorbid neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or learning disabilities.

The study was published in the March 6, 2024 edition of the journal JAMA Dermatology.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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