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See Inside April/May 2008

Infected with Insanity: Could Microbes Cause Mental Illness?

Viruses or bacteria may be at the root of schizophrenia and other disorders



NIBSC/SPL/Photo Researchers, Inc. (influenza particles); mEHAU KULYK Photo Researchers, Inc. (face)

Schizophrenia is a devastating illness. One percent of the world’s population suffers from its symptoms of hallucinations, psychosis and impaired cognitive ability. The disease destroys relationships and renders many of its sufferers unable to hold down a job. What could cause such frightening damage to the brain? According to a growing body of research, the culprit is surprising: the flu.

If you are skeptical, you are not alone. Being condemned to a lifetime of harsh antipsychotic drugs seems a far cry from a runny nose and fever. And yet studies have repeatedly linked schizophrenia to prenatal infections with influenza virus and other microbes, showing that the children of mothers who suffer these infections during pregnancy are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life. In 2006 scientists at Columbia University asserted that up to one fifth of all schizophrenia cases are caused by prenatal infections.

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