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New research investigates link between infections and schizophrenia

Monday, August 16th, 2010

Infections like the flu are common during pregnancy. Research shows that children born to mothers who had the flu or other infections during pregnancy have a higher risk for schizophrenia. A new study out of Temple University examines what’s behind that link.

Most infections don’t cross the placenta – so researchers were trying to find out why and how a fetus could be affected when mom gets the flu. The new findings take them a step closer to understanding the connection. When a pregnant woman has an infection, her immune system produces certain proteins in response. The study found that some of these proteins can lead to increased risk for brain abnormalities associated with schizophrenia in the developing fetus. Lauren Ellman of Temple University’s department of psychology says that’s not the only factor though:

Ellman: There has to be some kind of predisposition to schizophrenia in order for there to be damage to the brain from some of these infections, or immune responses to infections. So one of the things I’m interested in is looking at specific genes that might make the fetal brain more susceptible

Ellman says the findings have implications for healthcare during pregnancy, and highlight the importance of prenatal doctors’ visits and flu vaccines for expectant moms.


  • Christina bradley says:

    this is very interesting due my daughter being diagnosed with schizophrenia and I did have a very bad stomach flu the same week I delivered her. My mother also had a half sister who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Do you think this is all somehow related? Your response is greatly appriecated.

    Christina Braldey

    • Lauren Ellman says:

      Hi Christina,
      Thank you for your comment and your openness. It is possible that a stomach flu during pregnancy could contribute to risk for schizophrenia in offspring, but I have not seen any study that specifically looked at stomach problems. I think it should be noted that many women experience infections during their pregnancies and usually their children never develop any difficulties. I imagine that many factors contributed to your daughter developing the disorder. In part, you may carry some of the genes for the disorder, especially if you have a relative who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Typically, second degree relatives have about a 2-3% risk of developing the disorder, which is slightly above the population risk of 1%. Second, your stomach infection may have contributed to increased risk for your daughter developing schizophrenia, but only if many other factors were in place (e.g. genetic vulnerability and other environmental stressors). Third, schizophrenia is not caused by one factor or one gene. Other factors increase risk for schizophrenia, such as marijuana use and stress during adolescence, so it is possible that your daughter was exposed to multiple things that either additively or interactively caused the disorder. Essentially, your daughter’s disorder is not your fault. It is normal and very common to get infections during pregnancy. I hope you and your daughter are doing well and I’m happy to answer other questions about our research.

      Lauren Ellman, Ph.D.

      • Tammy says:

        My teenage son has been suffering from what was thought to be MDD with psychosis, but he is beginning to exhibit signs of paranoid schizophrenia. When I was pregnant with him and late in my second trimester, I suffered a severe case of Shingles (varicella-zoster). Could shingles have the same effect? BTW, my uncle (on my mother’s side) had a severe case of schizophrenia (leading to suicide).

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