A PhD research project funded by Australian Rotary Health has found that infections during later stages of pregnancy may increase the likelihood of the child developing schizophrenia.

Ryan Duchatel from the University of Newcastle was awarded an Ian Scott PhD Scholarship by Australian Rotary Health from 2014-2017 to examine the effects of how infections during pregnancy could influence the development of schizophrenia.

Using an animal model of infection during pregnancy and examining the offspring once they reached late adolescence (the period of vulnerability for schizophrenia), Ryan found that infections during pregnancy are a significant risk factor for the development of schizophrenia but differed between early and late pregnancy.

“Indeed, late gestation infection was more likely to alter different cell types within the brain of the offspring,” Ryan said.

“This included neuronal cells in the white matter, or connective tissue, within the brain, and microglia – the brain’s immune cells.”

Ryan also identified specific differences in gene expression in the brain of offspring between early and late infection.

“Schizophrenia is usually just considered to be a disorder of the mind, but people with schizophrenia actually have changes at the cellular level, including brain structure, differences in neuron type and number, and changes in genes.”

“What I find most interesting is there are clearly critical periods of gestational development that have life long lasting consequences if interrupted.”

Ryan’s research provides further evidence to the research field that infections during pregnancy contribute to schizophrenia development. These findings have been published in three peer-reviewed journal publications (to read the articles, click here, here, and here).

“That the addition of a single infection or immune activating event is enough to cause these changes – this really highlights the fragile nature of our developing babies,” Ryan said.

Ryan submitted his PhD thesis late last year and is expected to graduate this month.

 

Media contact: Jessica Cooper – (02) 8837 1900 0r jessica@arh.org.au