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Researchers issue definition -- and name change -- for PANDAS

February 24, 2012|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Children with PANDAS have sudden symptoms of OCD, such as the fear of germs.
Children with PANDAS have sudden symptoms of OCD, such as the fear of germs. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

A mental illness that strikes young children suddenly may be caused by a range of factors, including infections, according to a new report. The paper, published in the journal Pediatrics & Therapeutics, reflects a consensus statement on a condition called Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infections -- or PANDAS.

PANDAS causes the abrupt onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms in young children. In many cases, children fell ill after having a simple, childhood streptococcal infection, such as strep throat. The illness has been controversial, however, with some researchers suggesting that the children have traditional child-onset OCD and that infection is unrelated to the mental illness. Others, however, maintain that sudden-onset child OCD, and perhaps other mental illnesses, may have causes related to infection or immune-system dysfunction and, thus, may be treated rapidly and successfully with therapies that address the underlying problem.

More recently, research suggests something -- an infection, immune-system problem or environmental exposure -- can indeed trigger a stunningly fast onset of OCD. The new paper, led by scientists at the National Institutes of Health, broadens the definition of the illness to describe sudden-onset OCD in children no matter what the cause. Thus, the authors suggest calling the broader condition PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome).

The paper lists five criteria that must be met to diagnose a child and suggests how doctors should proceed with such cases. Many questions about PANS remain, but the paper and the growing awareness of the condition should steer more children into appropriate treatment.

"While waiting for the results of those research investigations, clinicians are encouraged to consider PANS when children present with acute-onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms, separation anxiety or emotional lability," the authors wrote.

The International OCD Foundation is also releasing two public service announcements to raise awareness of the condition among parents and primary-care doctors.

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