Women who continue smoking during pregnancy put their offspring at a higher risk of developing schizophrenia, a new study has found.

Aside from changing the fetal DNA, smoking during pregnancy has a myriad of other negative health outcomes. Even second-hand smoke causes children to develop debilitating diseases like asthma and allergic rhinitis.

Researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University collaborated with New York State Psychiatric Institute and scientists from Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, California, have found that smoking during pregnancy is highly associated with schizophrenia risk in children.

For their study, the group of researchers analyzed almost 1,000 schizophrenia cases from Finnish Prenatal Study of Schizophrenia and Finnish Maternity Cohort, and compared them with controls. They have discovered that children born from mothers with high nicotine levels in the blood were found to have as much as 38 percent increased risk of developing schizophrenia. The findings were noted despite adjusting other extraneous factors that may affect the result including maternal age, socioeconomic status and presence of familial psychiatric history.

Professor of clinical psychiatry and epidemiology Alan Brown said that their study is the first to establish the relationship of schizophrenia and nicotine exposure during pregnancy.

"These findings underscore the value of ongoing public health education on the potentially debilitating, and largely preventable, consequences that smoking may have on children over time," said Brown, who is also the senior study author.

Brown went on to say that animal studies focused on the biological mechanisms of the link must be carried out to further understand the level of association. Since the study has opened doors for mental health and smoking, focus should also include assessment of autism, bipolar disorder and other mental health illnesses.

Nicotine easily crosses the placenta to reach the bloodstream of the fetus, targeting brain development. This results in problems in cognition and other neurodevelopmental difficulties.

The study was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry on May 24.

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