Study links infection to mental illness

Virus during pregnancy triples schizophrenia risk

May 04, 2004|By Jamie Talan | Jamie Talan,NEWSDAY

A woman's battle with a virus such as flu during pregnancy might put her child at risk for schizophrenia later in life, new research suggests.

Scientists at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons tested blood taken from thousands of pregnant women in 1959 through 1966.

The blood of mothers whose children later developed the disabling mental illness had high levels of interleukin-8, an inflammatory chemical that fights infection.

The finding strengthens the researchers' earlier work, presented last year at the Society of Biological Psychiatry meeting. It found that people exposed to a viral infection during fetal development have a three-fold higher risk of schizophrenia.

"We hope that others will try to replicate our findings," said Dr. Alan Brown, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia and lead author of the study in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry.

Scientists studying causes of schizophrenia, which usually develops in the late teens and early 20s, have been looking at genetic and environmental factors. Researchers at Johns Hopkins and Harvard universities have been tracing other samples from pregnant women, also dating to the 1950s, and have found other viruses that put the developing fetus at risk for schizophrenia.

In this last study, the Columbia researchers looked for immune markers called cytokines that provide a strong signal of inflammation.

Increased cytokine activity has been associated with cerebral palsy and autism. Until recently, no one looked to see whether it could have a role in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. They are now trying to link the high level of the specific cytokine, called interleukin-8, and influenza.

Schizophrenia will strike one in every 100 people worldwide. While the best-known symptoms are hallucinations and delusions, there are other vexing symptoms, such as social withdrawal, blunted emotions, loss of drive, inability to think clearly and apathy.

Brown has no idea why or how viruses, or an increase in immune system cytokines, affect the developing brain. There is no evidence that the virus enters the placenta and seeps into the fetal brain.

Instead, Brown thinks it is the antibody that is created in response to an infection that might trigger some pathology during a key time in the development of the brain.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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