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Birth Defects Provide Schizophrenia Clue


WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 27, 2002 -- Babies born with minor physical abnormalities may be at increased risk of developing psychological problems such as schizophrenia -- especially if one or both of the parents suffers from schizophrenia.

A new study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, found children who were born with several physical deviations such as wide-set eyes, a high palate, low-set ears, or a curved fifth finger, among other anomalies, were more likely to suffer from schizophrenia-related disorders than no mental illness at all. Those with a high number of slight physical irregularities were also more likely to suffer from schizophrenia than other mental problems.

Researchers studied 265 Danish children at birth in 1972. Many were considered to be at high risk for developing schizophrenia or another mental disorder because they had a parent with the disorder. The infants were examined for any physical irregularities, and then their psychological status was evaluated as adults in 1991.

A genetic link for the schizophrenia has been suggested by previous research because the offspring of parents with the condition are at greater risk of developing it. Researchers say other mental illnesses have been linked to minor physical deviations as well.

The study authors say their findings suggest that when a fetus that is genetically predisposed to schizophrenia experiences the disturbances in the womb that cause minor physical irregularities during the first or second trimester, these two factors may work in conjunction to increase the risk for schizophrenia later in life.

"Minor physical anomalies may mark the occurrence of a prenatal "second hit," write the authors. They say more research is needed to understand how these mechanisms work together in order to develop interventions and treatments that could counter these effects.

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