JHMI Office of Communications and Public Affairs

October 31, 1998

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Infections During Pregnancy May Be Linked to Offspring's Mental Illness Later in Life

Viruses Found in Cerebrospinal Fluid of Schizophrenics

New Trends in Nutrition


Preliminary analysis of birth records and blood samples obtained from pregnant women enrolled in a national study during the 1960s indicates that infections, hypoxia and other stresses during pregnancy may be associated with the development of serious psychiatric diseases in their offspring, says Stephen L. Buka, Sc.D., associate professor of maternal and child health at the Harvard School of Public Health.

He is scheduled to present the findings in Bethesda, Nov. 5-7, at a symposium sponsored by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and the Theodore and Vada Stanley Foundation.

According to Buka, blood obtained from 59,000 pregnant women, all part of a national Prospective Cohort (CPP) Study in the 1960s, has proven invaluable today. Researchers have since followed their children into adulthood to see who developed schizophrenia, which has a prevalence of about 1% in the general population.

The preliminary data suggest that women who have influenza, herpes simplex II or toxoplasmosis during pregnancy may have children who are at increased risk of developing mental illness, says Buka. The same study revealed that infants who did not have enough oxygen at birth also may be at increased risk of psychotic illness later in life.

"Our follow-up work provides an unprecedented opportunity to examine these topics. This is the best way we have of actually determining the causes of schizophrenia," says Buka.

Study unveiled at 4th Neurovirology Symposium

Preliminary studies at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center suggest the presence of retroviral nucleic acids in the cerebrospinal fluid of schizophrenics, say researchers. They will present their findings in Bethesda at the 4th Symposium on the Neurovirology and Neuroimmunology of Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder, Nov. 5-7.

"Most people who develop schizophrenia have no family history. But they may have a genetic predisposition and then suffer an environmental insult that triggers the disease," says Robert H. Yolken, M.D., chairman of the Stanley Division of Developmental Neurovirology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. He cites recent findings from schizophrenic patients in which retroviral nucleic acids appeared in their cerebrospinal fluid, but were not found in healthy controls.

Samples of cerebrospinal fluid and blood were studied after the patients' first reported episodes of mental illness. In five of the 18 patients studied, researchers found viral nucleic acids similar to the ones found in the human genome. According to Yolken, these retroviruses are endogenous, meaning they are passed on from parent to child, rather than being acquired from an outside agent. Since schizophrenia most often arises during young adulthood, one theory is that hormones, cytokines or other environmental agents activate these viruses.

Future studies are needed, however, for the researchers to determine whether these viruses are directly involved in the development of schizophrenia or whether they are expressed as a result of the disease process. The researchers plan to further characterize the viral genome from the samples of cerebrospinal fluid, as well as reassess patients after they have taken medication for schizophrenia, to see if the virus is still present.

The Symposium is sponsored by the Theodore and Vada Stanley Foundation and the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.


John Hopkins Children's Center physicians and other nationally recognized experts will discuss the latest trends in child nutrition, Nov. 2-4, at the third annual Advances in Pediatric Nutrition course. Topics include changes in the recommended daily allowances (RDAs) for children.

According to Jose Saavedra, M.D., director of the Pediatric Nutrition Center at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center, where the meeting will be held, the focus in the field of nutrition has moved beyond preventing malnutrition and obesity to incorporate nuances in vitamin dosage that could play an important role in keeping children healthy.

Among recent RDA revisions are recommendations that children ingest greater amounts of calcium to strengthen bones, megadoses of zinc to overcome viral infections, and more pre- and pro-biotics, like those found in yogurt, which Saavedra and his colleagues have linked to enhanced natural immune system function. When pro-biotics are added to infant formula, for example, babies have better stool habits and decreased incidence of diaper rash.

Meanwhile, a new class of substances called "nutraceuticals," nutrients that act as a bridge between nutrition and chemicals, are making an impact. An example is docoso-hexanoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid that may help with faster development of the central nervous system when added to infant formula. "What we eat as children has an impact on our future health," says Saavedra.

Other topics at the course will include breastmilk, childhood feeding behaviors, and liver disease.

For press inquiries, call Wendy Mullins at (410)223-1741, or Michele McFarland at (410)223-1732.

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