Women who catch the flu during pregnancy are up to seven times more likely to have a child with schizophrenia - and scientists believe they have finally figured out why.
A rogue protein, interleukin 6 - produced when a pregnant woman is fighting a viral infection - may help trigger mental illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia in the child, neuroscientist Paul Patterson said yesterday.
Patterson, speaking from an international neuroscience conference in Melbourne, Australia, said schizophrenia and autism resulted from a combination of environmental factors such as the mother's health and genetic predisposition.
Patterson, from the California Institute of Technology, said that when a pregnant woman contracted respiratory infections such as influenza during pregnancy, there was a greater risk the fetus's brain would be permanently altered, leaving it prone to the possibility of mental illness later in life.
But while this knowledge had been known in the scientific community for some time, just how the virus enhanced the conditions for schizophrenia was unclear until Patterson's as-yet unpublished research.
"What Allan Brown and his colleagues from Columbia University did was show that 15 to 20 percent of schizophrenic cases are due to viruses in the mother, which are pretty amazing numbers," he told The Australian. "What we have looked to show is the mechanism of how the mother's response to the flu alters fetal brain development."