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Prenatal Flu Exposure Linked to Lower Intelligence Scores

Last Updated: April 23, 2009.

Exposure to the Hong Kong flu in utero may be associated with lower intelligence in adulthood, according to research published online ahead of print March 18 in the Annals of Neurology.

THURSDAY, April 23 (HealthDay News) -- Exposure to the Hong Kong flu in utero may be associated with lower intelligence in adulthood, according to research published online ahead of print March 18 in the Annals of Neurology.

Willy Eriksen, M.D., of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in Oslo, and colleagues analyzed data from 182,913 men born in Norway after 37 to 43 weeks' gestation who later underwent intelligence testing at military conscription, typically in young adulthood. The men were born between 1967 and 1973; Norway was affected by Hong Kong flu during the global pandemic in late 1969 and early 1970.

The researchers found that the mean intelligence score rose from one birth year to another, aside from a decrease in 1970. This year was associated with lower intelligence score, even after adjusting for a variety of factors including birth order and parental demographics. Those born in July through October of 1970 -- or six to nine months after the main outbreak -- had lower scores than individuals born in the same months in preceding or following years.

"One explanation of our findings may be that exposure to influenza virus infection interfered with the cerebral development in the fetus. In laboratory animals, maternal infection with human influenza virus during pregnancy has been shown to be associated with abnormal morphology and abnormal genetic expression in the postnatal brain of the offspring. The pathogenic mechanisms behind these reactions remain unclear, though," the authors write.

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