Early life immune environment and risk of psychiatric disorders

It is well known that exposure to certain infectious agents (for example, Toxoplasma gondii or Cytomegalovirus) for the first time during pregnancy can affect the developing brain and nervous system of the fetus, leading to intellectual impairments and learning difficulties later in life.

Our research examines whether more subtle changes in the maternal immune system, such as those associated with infections, and exposure to serious infections during the first years of life can also lead to changes in the developing nervous system, influencing later risk of psychiatric disorders and changes in cognitive abilities.

First type of study

We use two different types of studies to explore these questions. In the first type of study, we examine whether hospitalization for serious infections during pregnancy or during the early life of the child influences later risk of psychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorders (ASD) or schizophrenia and other non-affective psychoses.

For these studies, we use information from our register linkage database, Psychiatry Sweden, that collects data from Swedish regional and national registers regarding health care use and diagnoses. We have shown that infections during early life increase later risk of ASD and non-affective psychoses, as well as impairing later cognitive abilities.

Second type of study

In the second type of study, we take advantage of biological samples collected from pregnant women and newborn babies as part of routine healthcare procedures and stored in national and regional biobanks. Using these samples, we are able to measure specific markers related to maternal and fetal immune function (such as antibodies directed at specific infections and immune signaling molecules) and understand whether changes in these markers are linked to later risk of disorders such as ASD or schizophrenia.

In these studies, we have shown that maternal exposure to certain infections (such as T. gondii and CMV) increases risk of schizophrenia, as does having low levels of markers of innate (or non-specific) immunity at birth.

Association of Childhood Infection With IQ and Adult Nonaffective Psychosis in Swedish Men: A Population-Based Longitudinal Cohort and Co-relative Study.

Contact for the project

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Renee Gardner

Principal Researcher
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Christina Dalman

Professor/Senior Physician


Associations Between Maternal Infection During Pregnancy, Childhood Infections, and the Risk of Subsequent Psychotic Disorder--A Swedish Cohort Study of Nearly 2 Million Individuals.
Blomström Å, Karlsson H, Gardner R, Jörgensen L, Magnusson C, Dalman C
Schizophr Bull 2016 Jan;42(1):125-33

Influence of maternal infections on neonatal acute phase proteins and their interaction in the development of non-affective psychosis.
Blomström Å, Gardner RM, Dalman C, Yolken RH, Karlsson H
Transl Psychiatry 2015 Feb;5():e502

Maternal hospitalization with infection during pregnancy and risk of autism spectrum disorders.
Lee BK, Magnusson C, Gardner RM, Blomström Å, Newschaffer CJ, Burstyn I, et al
Brain Behav. Immun. 2015 Feb;44():100-5

Content reviewer:
Hanna Johans