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Gluten Sensitivity in Mothers Linked to Schizophrenia Risk in Children

Gluten Sensitivity in Mothers Linked to Schizophrenia Risk in ChildrenChildren born to mothers who have a gluten sensitivity may be at greater risk for developing certain psychiatric disorders later in life, according to scientists at Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that several adult disorders may take root before and shortly after birth.

“Lifestyle and genes are not the only factors that shape disease risk, and factors and exposures before, during and after birth can help pre-program much of our adult health,” said investigator Robert Yolken, M.D., a neuro-virologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

“Our study is an illustrative example suggesting that a dietary sensitivity before birth could be a catalyst in the development of schizophrenia or a similar condition 25 years later.”

Infections and other inflammatory problems in the pregnant mother have long been associated with a greater risk for schizophrenia in the child but, the Swedish and U.S. researchers say, this is the first study that shows how a mother’s food sensitivity may potentially lead to the development of the disorder.

The findings demonstrate a strong link but do not mean that gluten sensitivity will invariably cause schizophrenia, say the researchers. The study, however, does provide an intriguing look into what drives up risk and could lead to the development of new prevention strategies.

“Our research not only underscores the importance of maternal nutrition during pregnancy and its lifelong effects on the offspring, but also suggests one potential cheap and easy way to reduce risk if we were to find further proof that gluten sensitivity exacerbates or drives up schizophrenia risk,” said study lead investigator Håkan Karlsson, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist at Karolinska Institutet and former neuro-virology fellow at Johns Hopkins.

The study involved the examination of 764 birth records and neonatal blood samples of Swedes born between 1975 and 1985. About 211 of them eventually developed non-affective psychoses, such as schizophrenia and delusional disorders.

The researchers measured levels of IgG antibodies to milk and wheat in the stored neonatal blood samples. IgG antibodies are markers of immune system reactions triggered by the presence of certain proteins. Since the mother’s antibodies travel through the placenta during pregnancy to give immunity to the baby, a newborn’s higher IgG levels reveal a protein sensitivity in the mother.

Babies whose mothers had abnormally high levels of antibodies to the wheat protein gluten had almost double the risk of developing schizophrenia later in life, compared to children with normal levels of gluten antibodies.

The link persisted even after investigators accounted for other factors known to increase schizophrenia risk, including maternal age, gestational age, method of delivery and the mother’s immigration status. The risk for psychiatric disorders did not increase among those with elevated levels of antibodies to milk protein.

The researchers say the notion that a person’s psychiatric disorder may be linked to his mother’s food sensitivity began with an observation made by U.S. Army researcher F. Curtis Dohan, M.D. just after World War II. Dohan noticed that food scarcity in post-war Europe and wheat-poor diets led to notably fewer hospital admissions for schizophrenia. The link had been purely observational, but it has piqued the curiosity of scientists ever since.

Past research has also shown that people with schizophrenia have abnormally high rates of celiac disease, a rare autoimmune disorder characterized by gluten sensitivity. Although it is a hallmark of the condition, gluten sensitivity by itself is not enough to diagnose celiac disease.

Scientists note that other research has found that some people with schizophrenia have gluten sensitivity without having any other signs of celiac disease.

Yolken and Karlsson say the team is conducting followup studies to further investigate how gluten or gluten sensitivity increases schizophrenia risk and whether it only affects those already genetically predisposed.

The study is published in The American Journal of Psychiatry.

Source:  Karolinska Institutet

Gluten Sensitivity in Mothers Linked to Schizophrenia Risk in Children

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). Gluten Sensitivity in Mothers Linked to Schizophrenia Risk in Children. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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