Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flu during pregnancy raises risk of schizophrenia

With all the talk of swine flu, or whatever they're calling it these days, I couldn't help but recall some research I came across years ago. It found that pregnant women who contract the flu have an increased risk their child will develop schizophrenia later in life.

Schizophrenia is a serious psychosis — a mental illness characterized by disordered thinking — that can include visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions. In colloquial language, it means you're insane. Schizophrenia affects about 1% of the U.S. population and can be seriously debilitating, requiring institutionalization in severe forms. You may recall the movie A Beautiful Mind in which actor Russell Crowe portrayed a man with schizophrenia. The symptoms don't usually appear until a person is around 20 years old.

The link between maternal flu infection and schizophrenia was published by Dr. Alan Brown, a Columbia University psychiatrist, in 2004 in the Archives of General Psychiatry. His research team looked for antibodies to influenza in archived blood samples from 64 women whose children developed schizophrenia as adults and a control group of 125 women whose children did not. Women who had higher levels of influenza antibodies in their first or second trimester of pregnancy had offspring who were 3 to 7 times more likely to develop schizophrenia.

Brown calculated that if the women had not had the flu during pregnancy, 14 percent of the schizophrenia cases could have been prevented, an effect he calls potentially enormous.

Although researchers do not know the mechanism of action, many think a certain protein released by the mother’s immune system in the wake of a flu infection goes on to harm the infant's developing brain. A flu infection stimulates the release of an immune system protein called interleukin-6, which in normal amounts helps the immune system do its job. However, the release of abnormal amounts of IL-6 is associated with autoimmune disorders such as allergies and asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and more. In the wake of a flu infection, the immune system can go haywire. The normal result of fever, inflammation and secretion of glucocorticoids like cortisol, aka the 'stress hormone,' can go bananas and cause the immune system to destroy good cells — possibly in this case of schizophrenia, brain cells in specific regions of the brain of the developing fetus.

Given the known genetic links to schizophrenia, it is also possible that an inherited predisposition to an abnormal immune system reaction in the wake of flu is another risk factor. After all, the vast majority of women who get the flu during pregnancy do not have children that grow up to have schizophrenia. According to Brown's research, the overall risk of schizophrenia from flu is small — 97% of children born to women who got the flu while pregnant will not develop schizophrenia. But what if you have inherited a predisposition to over-react to the flu? Perhaps your risk of having a child with schizophrenia goes up — way up.

This is certainly something they arouses my concern given I have a family history of autoimmune disorders in my immediate family. My mom is a walking advertisement for screwed up immune system and my little sister developed an autoimmune response to the flu when she was 6 — a rare condition called ITP that put her in the hospital for a week. Then there's a more distant relative who actually had schizophrenia. Needless to say, I have already started taking precautions at work and will happily become a hypochondriac washing, antisocial freak just to be safe.

Regardless, it is interesting that schizophrenia may yet turn out to be a partially communicable disease.

By the way, if you are sick, please cough into a tissue or your sleeve and not your hands!!
If you put those germs on your hands you spread em!


Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

Have you seen the CDC video on coughing in your sleeve?! It's a hoot (on YouTube I'm sure).

I was disappointed when President Obama didn't mention sneezing/couging into your sleeve since it is an official CDC recommendation. I suppose it was enough that he stressed washing hands....

Taking precautions when you are pregnant is wonderful. Try to keep your stress levels low, too; I've read research that elevated stress levels during pregnancy can negatively affected fetuses as well. Lots of TLC and relaxation....

emmarocks said...

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Filename GeladaBaboonSwelling(M&F).jpg
I've used this image in a documentary I am working on and would like to license it but need to know the original source. Please could you contact me at
Many Thanks.