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In a world-first study, University of Otago psychology PhD student Desiree Dickerson has found immune responses caused by bacterial or viral infections in pregnant women increased by three or four times the risk of developing brain-wave patterns associated with schizophrenia.
Working with study co-author Amy Wolff, Ms Dickerson studied the brain waves of rats to establish the link.
"There is a considerable body of evidence suggesting that changes in neural synchronisation may underlie a range of symptoms seen in schizophrenia.
"At the same time, many studies have found that infection during early to mid-pregnancy slightly increases the overall risk of children developing this illness as adults, with recent research implicating the mother's immune response."
The new study helped "connect the dots" between the maternal infection findings and brain-wave research.
The communication problems between brain regions thought to underpin schizophrenia could be triggered by a maternal immune reaction to infection.
Ms Dickerson likened brain-wave problems to a crowd doing a Mexican wave.
"Brain cells in individuals with schizophrenia are like people trying to produce the Mexican wave independently and with poor timing - the wave doesn't form cohesively and the message is distorted."
Ms Dickerson said the findings were another reason for pregnant women to have a flu injection, and to avoid being run down and at risk of colds or flus.
The findings appear in the latest edition of the Journal of Neuroscience.