Behavioral Changes and Learning Challenges in Children By Alex Laoch

Changes in a child’s behavior and/or learning can be scary and daunting for the child and their loved ones. While there are many reasons for learning and behavior changes, some known and some unknown, there may be a reason you haven’t thought of:

Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease, often called “The Great Imitator,” can mimic and cause learning disabilities and psychiatric illnesses.1, 2 According to the American Journal of Psychiatry, “One-third of the psychiatric patients had serological signs of past Borrelia burgdorferi [the bacteria that causes Lyme disease] infections.” 3 Moreover, “Lyme disease in children may be accompanied by long-term neuropsychiatric disturbances, resulting in psychosocial and academic impairments.”4

There is also an increasing body of evidence that may change the entire paradigm of what has been thought of as “psychiatric illnesses” and “learning disabilities.” Mounting research points to infectious diseases both mimicking and causing “psychiatric illnesses.”

Recent clinical, epidemiological, microbiological, and immunological studies point to infectious etiology of several important neuropsychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and others. In addition, many infectious diseases, including HIV, syphilis, influenza virus, Lyme disease, etc. are associated with neuropsychiatric symptoms due to infectious involvement of the central nervous system (CNS). 5

Dr. Brian Fallon, Director of Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University, states that “a variety of infections have been associated with depression and other psychiatric disorders… Today, the spirochete that is most likely to be a cause of depression is ‘Borrelia burgdorferi,’ the agent of Lyme disease.”6

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), signs and symptoms of Lyme disease can include problems with short-term memory and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord. 7

These problems are caused by meningitis, which “… is an inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges. ”8 Bacterial meningitis can be associated with Lyme disease and can lead to a host of medical issues including “… disabilities such as brain damage … and learning disabilities …” 9

Learning disabilities, psychiatric illnesses and related symptoms associated with Lyme disease include, but are not limited to:

ADD/ADHD/Attention Difficulties


Asperger’s Syndrome (on the Autism spectrum)

Auditory or Visual Sequential Processing


Bipolar Disorder

Cognitive Deficits



Executive Function Difficulties (planning and organizing)

Expressive and Receptive Language

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

Memory Deficits

Panic Attacks


What can you do if you suspect your child may have Lyme disease?

It is imperative that children receive a proper diagnosis and medical treatment whether or not the diagnosis is or is not Lyme disease. Qualified Lyme treating physicians have expertise and experience treating patients with Lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses. A competent healthcare professional will make a differential diagnosis in effort to ensure the correct diagnosis is made.

It can be helpful to take your child to be evaluated using the parameters presented in Dr. Robert Bransfield’s Neuropsychiatric Assessment of Lyme Disease

If your child has Lyme disease and/or tick borne coinfections:

A child with Lyme disease may be afforded rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). Options may include either an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or services under Section 504
*This article is for informational purposes only and does not serve as medical or legal advice.

1. Neuropsychiatric Presentations of Lyme Disease. Daniel Cameron MD Web site. Published 2014. Accessed July 19, 2016.

2. Tick-borne Disease in Children and Adolescents A Medical Illness / Multidisciplinary “Cure”. Lyme Disease Association Website. Published April 28, 2012. Updated May 3, 2012. Accessed July 15, 2016.

3. Hájek T, Pasková B, Janovská D, Bahbouh R, Hájek P, Libiger J, Höschl C. Higher prevalence of antibodies to Borrelia burgdorferi in psychiatric patients than in healthy subjects. Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Feb;159(2):297-301. PMID: 11823274

4. Tager FA, Fallon BA, Keilp J, Rissenberg M, Jones CR, Liebowitz MR. A controlled study of cognitive deficits in children with chronic Lyme disease. J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2001 Fall;13(4):500-7. PMID: 11748319

5. Jellinger, K. A. “Neuropsychiatric Disorders and Infection.” European Journal of Neurology 16.7 (2009): e133-e133.

6. Ask the Experts? Question: Do infectious diseases cause depression? Columbia Psychiatry Web site. Published 2010. Accessed July 16, 2016.

7. Lyme Disease: Signs and Symptoms of Untreated Lyme Disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Page last reviewed: March 4, 2015. Page last updated: August 17, 2015. Accessed July 19, 2016.

8. Meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Page last reviewed: April 15, 2016. Page last updated: June 29, 2016. Accessed July 19, 2016.

9. Meningitis: Bacterial Meningitis. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. Page last reviewed: April 15, 2016. Page last updated: June 15, 2016. Accessed July 19, 2016.

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