Study finds schizophrenia infection link

Ryan Ward
Ryan Ward
Finding a link between a mother's infection during pregnancy and a schizophrenia symptom in her offspring was ``an exciting first'' for researchers in a study of rats at the University of Otago.

It was the first time a link had been established between a known risk factor, activation of a mother's immune system during pregnancy, and a specific impairment related to schizophrenia, lead researcher Ryan Ward, of the department of psychology, said.

The finding was so significant because the particular impairment, affecting the ability to judge time accurately, was thought to be related to many other symptoms of schizophrenia.

As a result of the study, Dr Ward recommended pregnant women be vigilant with their health, although they could obviously not isolate themselves from the rest of the world for nine months.

But the ``take-home message'' was pregnant women should take care of themselves.

Schizophrenia was thought to result from an interaction of genetic and environmental ``hits'', and, over time, the combination of those hits led to development of the disease.

``One environmental hit that has been shown to be a significant risk factor is activation of the maternal immune system, likely caused by illness, during pregnancy,'' Dr Ward said.

The Otago University brain health research centre study, recently published in the peer-reviewed open access scientific journal PLOS One, found activation of the maternal immune system in rats was sufficient to produce impaired timing, which was likely critical to other schizophrenia symptoms and impairments.

Impaired ability to judge time accurately was a primary symptom in patients and was also thought to be related to other symptoms, such as hallucinations, and cognitive impairment.

The study revealed adult offspring, whose mothers experienced infection during pregnancy, overestimated time in a way similar to patients with schizophrenia.

It was the first time a study had shown maternal immune system activation by itself was sufficient to produce timing impairments, indicating it could be responsible, in the absence of other risk factors such as genetic differences, for one of the most robust and detrimental schizophrenia-relevant impairments in humans.

``Taking extra care during pregnancy should be a primary goal for expectant mothers and healthcare providers, as illness during this time can have far-reaching consequences. For those with a family history of mental illness, this becomes even more important,'' Dr Ward said.

It was hoped such research would result in improvements to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of schizophrenia.


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