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Adult Schizophrenia Following Prenatal Exposure to an Influenza Epidemic

Sarnoff A. Mednick, PhD, DrMed; Ricardo A. Machon, PhD; Matti O. Huttunen, MD; Douglas Bonett, PhD
Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1988;45(2):189-192. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1988.01800260109013.
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• In the context of a Finnish birth cohort, we tested the hypothesis that viral infection during the latter two thirds of fetal development would increase the risk of adult schizophrenic outcome. Psychiatric hospital diagnoses were recorded for all individuals in greater Helsinki who were fetuses during the 1957 type A2 influenza epidemic. Those exposed to the viral epidemic during their second trimester of fetal development were at elevated risk of being admitted to a psychiatric hospital with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. This was true for both males and females and independently in several psychiatric hospitals. The second-trimester effect was seen in the elevated proportion of schizophrenics among those admitted to a psychiatric hospital and also in higher rates of schizophrenia per 1000 live births in the city of Helsinki. The study has several limitations: (1) We have no direct evidence that the subjects actually suffered a viral Infection. (2) The psychiatric data were obtained only for subjects up to the age of 26 years, 56 days. (3) The findings are based on hospital diagnoses. (4) The determination of stage of gestation at time of exposure to the epidemic is based on date of birth. The viral Infection might have occurred outside the official epidemic window; the infant may have had a preterm or postterm delivery. These sources of error, however, should not serve to enhance the findings. The observed viral effect is interpreted as being one of many potential perturbations of gestation. We suggest that It is less the type than the timing of the disturbance during fetal neural development that is critical in determining risk for schizophrenia.

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