A new study out of Temple University explains the reason why kids born to mothers who suffered from flu, viruses and other infections during pregnancy have about a 1.5 to 7 times increased risk for schizophrenia.
Temple University psychologist Lauren Ellman found that exposure during pregnancy to certain immune proteins, such as those produced in response to the flu, leads to increased risk for brain abnormalities associated with schizophrenia in offspring.
The good news, says Ellman, is that not all of the women in the study who showed an increase in immune proteins gave birth to offspring who developed brain alterations.
"This tells us that some other factor - perhaps a genetic vulnerability or something from the environment - must also be present for the increased immune protein levels to lead to the brain alterations we identified," she said.
Previous studies, including one by Ellman, have already established a link between maternal exposure to flu and increased risk for schizophrenia in offspring, but it was not clear why the link existed, because most infections do not cross the placenta. Researchers then began to look at maternal immune responses to infection as the possible cause for the increased risk.
Of particular interest to the researchers were proteins termed proinflammatory cytokines, which are produced by the body in response to infection.
"Now, it appears that the damaging effects to the fetus are related to these maternal responses to infection during pregnancy rather than to the infections themselves," Ellman said.
The study has been published this month in Schizophrenia Research.