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Mother's flu could lead to mental illnesses
By Stephen Lunn
July 16, 2007 12:00am

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, US neuroscientist Paul Patterson said yesterday.

Professor Patterson, speaking from an international neuroscience conference in Melbourne, said schizophrenia and autism resulted from a combination of environmental factors such as the mother's health and genetic predisposition.

Professor 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 foetus'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some time, just how the virus enhanced the conditions for schizophrenia was unclear until Professor Patterson's as-yet unpublished research.

"What Allan Brown and his colleagues from Columbia University did was show that 15-20 per cent 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."

He said in fighting the virus, the mother produced the protein interleukin 6, "which we now think is the agent of change".

"We experimented with mice, and used antibodies to block that protein from being developed after the mice had been given the flu virus.

"We found that, if you blocked it, the mice offspring seem to be completely normal and presumably their pathology will be too."

Professor Patterson said that taking any step toward a clinical trial on humans was "dicey" because of the risks of experimenting on pregnant women, so he and his team were looking at applications where they may be able to intervene postnatally.

"Pregnant women shouldn't feel that their child will definitely wind up with schizophrenia because they have been sick, but Brown's work shows they should definitely try to take as many precautions against getting sick as they can," he said.

"Catching the flu when you're pregnant is not a good thing, and does increase the risk of adverse consequences for the foetus."

The conference also heard that the active agent in the drug ecstasy, oxytocin, had the potential to treat children with autism and schizophrenia.

Sydney neuropharmacologist Iain McGregor said oxytocin had "huge potential benefits" if it could be harnessed in a safe and controlled way.

Professor McGregor said oxytocin was released naturally during childbirth, when breastfeeding and during orgasm.

He said its natural effects could be used to treat children with autism to help them overcome social detachment.

"People with schizophrenia also display strong signs of social withdrawal, and oxytocin could potentially play a role in addressing this aspect of the condition."
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