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Can the Zika virus cause mental illness?

Posted on 06-03-16 in Cognition, Health, Mental Health

Can the Zika virus cause mental illness?

As the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, draws closer, worries about the global impact of the Zika virus continue to grow.

The Zika virus, a disease spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, has been spotted in numerous countries throughout the Caribbean, Central America, South America and the Pacific Islands. Although the Zika virus causes only mild symptoms in adults, researchers strongly suspect that it is linked to the increasing number of microcephaly cases in Brazil.

In other words, pregnant women who contract the Zika virus may be more likely to have children with severe physical and neurological birth defects.

Unfortunately, The New York Times reports that another, less immediate effect of the Zika virus may occur: an increased risk of mental illness.

Why the Zika virus might lead to mental illness

Researchers have long been aware that experiencing a viral infection in utero can increase the risk of a person later developing mental illness.

For instance, a study conducted in 1988 found that adults who were exposed to an influenza epidemic while still in the womb (specifically during the latter two thirds of fetal development) were at a greater risk of developing schizophrenia. In 1999, researchers found that individuals with schizophrenia were more likely to be born during the winter months — or flu season. Another study in 2001 found that 20 percent of children born to mothers who were infected with rubella during pregnancy later developed schizophrenia — this is compared to a 1.1 percent risk in the general population.

Currently, scientists have yet to determine whether or not the Zika virus outbreak will lead to larger incidences of mental illness, especially since children born during the epidemic are still too young to be diagnosed. Since it appears that the Zika virus can directly influence brain development, researchers aren’t optimistic.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a big upswing in ADHD, autism, epilepsy and schizophrenia,” explained W. Ian Lipkin, M.D., a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, in an interview with The New York Times. “We’re looking at a large group of individuals who may not be able to function in the world.”

In the meantime, clinicians will continue to keep an eye on children who were exposed to the virus while in the womb. Only time will tell whether or not the virus carries long-term psychological effects.

The Sovereign Health Group is a residential rehabilitation treatment provider that offers high-quality and comprehensive care for individuals with mental illness, substance addiction and co-occurring conditions. As part of our comprehensive admissions process, we screen for all possible conditions to ensure we treat everything. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group, where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at