Inflammation and psychopathology in children following PICU admission: an exploratory study

Survivors of critical illness in childhood commonly display subsequent psychiatric symptoms including emotional and behavioural difficulties, and manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anomalies in inflammatory profiles are an established finding in these childhood psychiatric conditions.


This exploratory study aimed to investigate whether abnormal peripheral blood inflammatory markers measured during paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission were associated with psychiatric symptoms after discharge.


We performed a prospective observational cohort study on 71 children with septic illness, meningoencephalitis and other critical disorders admitted to two PICUs between 2007 and 2010. 3–6 months following discharge, subjects were assessed for global psychiatric risk (ie, presence of emotional and behavioural difficulties on the parental Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ)), and for PTSD risk using the child-rated Impact of Events Scale (IES-8). Inflammatory and related biological markers were transcribed from PICU admission notes (white cell count, lymphocytes, neutrophils, C reactive protein (CRP), platelets, fibrinogen and lactate).


Global psychiatric risk at follow-up was associated with abnormal lymphocyte count during admission (2=6.757, p=0.014, n=48). In children with sepsis, partial correlation analyses controlling for age and gender highlighted associations between (i) SDQ scores and low lymphocyte count (r=–0.712; p=0.009, n=14), and (ii) IES-8 score and high CRP levels (r=0.823; p=0.006, n=11). These associations remained after correction for multiple comparisons.


These results support the hypothesis that acute inflammation may play a role in determining the development of psychopathology following PICU admission.

Clinical implications

If the findings are replicated, they may help to better highlight which children are at risk of post-PICU psychopathology and appropriately target follow-up.