Scientists have, for the first time, tied a common viral infection to the development of schizophrenia.
An international team of researchers, led by Aarhus University in Denmark, found that women infected with cytomegalovirus during pregnancy are far more likely to have a child that goes on to develop the serious psychiatric disorder if she and her baby also carry a particular gene defect.
Lead researcher Anders Børglum, a professor of medical genetics at Aarhus University, said the discovery opens the door to preventing schizophrenia by developing an anti-viral medicine for women to take during pregnancy.
"In the longer term, the development of an effective vaccine against cytomegalovirus may help to prevent many cases of schizophrenia," said Børglum. "And our discovery emphasizes that mental disorders such as schizophrenia may arise in the context of an interaction between genes and biological environmental factors very early in life."
To reach their conclusions, researchers scanned the genes of hundreds of sick and healthy people to identify the interaction between genes and the common virus in the development of schizophrenia. The results showed women infected by the virus had a “statistically significant” increased risk of giving birth to a child who later developed schizophrenia, if that child also a defective gene, seen in about 15 percent of individuals.
Most people infected with cytomegalovirus never know it because symptoms are typically mild. The researchers also stressed that there is no cause for alarm — even if both risk factors are present in mother and child — because a variety of other factors can prevent the development of schizophrenia, which strikes about 1 percent of the population.
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