Zika Could Trigger Mental Illness, Say Experts

Add this to the list of reasons to avoid the Zika virus at all costs: Infections during pregnancy might also be upping your baby's risk of mental illness.

Zika Could Trigger Mental Illness, Say Experts

Just when we thought the Zika virus might not be as dangerous as we thought, we've learned of another threat that's associated with the mysterious infection. According to a report from the New York Times, the virus might even cause mental illness in the babies of the pregnant women it infects.

According to the report, while microcephaly might be the most commonly mentioned side-effect of the Zika virus in pregnant women because it's the most obvious—after all, microcephaly causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads—less easily identifiable conditions like autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia could also be linked to exposure to the virus.

Zika closely resembles other infectious agents like rubella that have caused these mental illnesses, according to the researchers. While illnesses like schizophrenia have no single cause, Zika just might increase a baby's odds of developing these conditions, even though most mental illnesses stem from multiple factors (including societal influences like abuse, drug use and abandonment.)

Infection during the early part of pregnancy could kill a fetus or impede the growth of its brain—but an infection during the later part of pregnancy could have consequences, albeit less obvious repercussions than the more easily diagnosed microcephaly.

"It is pretty scary," Urs Meyer, M.D., a behavioral neurobiologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, said. "These problems are on a continuous scale, and whether you end up with autism or schizophrenia is complex—and we really can't predict it." Dr. Meyer studies the effects of fetal infections in lab animals.

There has been research to support the idea that infections in utero could cause mental illness later in life (incidences of schizophrenia are higher in people born during the winter, when rates of the flu virus are high,) which leads researchers to believe that Zika could certainly cause mental issues that surface later in life.

Stanley Plotkin, M.D., said it is possible for babies of women infected with the Zika virus to avoid being born with microcephaly and suffer mental illness instead. "Any virus in the blood of a pregnant woman is a risk to the fetus, so ultimately there may be damage," he said.