Previous research has suggested that women who contract flu during pregnancy are at higher risk of giving birth to a baby likely to develop schizophrenia later on in life.
The discovery, made in rats, could explain a suspected link between flu and the mental illness.
The new study which was reported in the journal of Biological Psychiatry, has found that early detection and use of medication could stop the illness developing.
Israeli scientists exposed rats to a chemical with similar properties to a flu virus and were then monitored regularly using scans to evaluate the progress of their offspring.
Results showed that the affected rat pups were normal throughout childhood but began to exhibit schizophrenia like symptoms when they reached early adulthood. However, treating the rats with two common antic psychotic drugs risperidone and clozapine appeared to counteract the affects. The drugs were found to be most affective when administered during the rats adolescent period, several months before reaching full maturity.
Schizophrenia developing during early adulthood is a pattern which is reflected in humans with most people who suffer from a mental illness developing it during their early twenties.
Professor Ina Weiner from Tel Aviv University conducted the study and has said that if progressive brain changes occur as schizophrenia is emerging, it could be possible to intervene and prevent the illness from developing. “That would revolutionise the treatment of the disorder.” She said.
Professor Weiner is continuing research to determine at what stage the changes in the brain can be detected.