By Bec Crew
An algal virus called ATCV-1 was first discovered several years ago in brain tissue samples taken from deceased humans. Because the researchers couldn’t confirm if the virus had made its way there before or after death, not much came from the discovery initially. But more recently, ATCV-1 was discovered again, and this time in the throats of patients affected by psychiatric disease who were very much alive. Was there a connection between the presence of this little-known virus and the patients’ psychiatric conditions? Led by paediatric infectious disease expert Robert Yolken, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University in the US decided to find out.
ATCV-1 virus is a type of chlorovirus, which typically infects certain species of freshwater green algae. While viruses that infect what’s known as ‘higher plants’, such as ferns, conifers, and flowering plants, are among the smallest viruses known to science, the viruses that infect algae are some of the largest found to date. They have a whopping 600 protein-encoding genes, and act more like bacteria than a virus. They also have the ability to change the cognitive function of their human hosts, as Yolken and his team discovered.
To do so, they first wanted to find out if the virus was present in healthy people, having already found it in psychiatric patients. Of the 92 healthy people they checked, all based in Balimore in the US, the virus was found in 43 percent of them, and it appeared to be doing weird things to their brains.
According to Elizabeth Pennisi at Science, the subjects who were infected with the virus performed 10 percent worse than their uninfected peers when asked to complete visual processing tasks. One such activity involved drawing a line that connected a sequence of numbers spread randomly across a page, and the infected patients completed it 10 percent slower. They were also shown to have shorter attention spans, and a higher probability of being distracted, the researchers reveal in their study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As Pennisi notes, “The effects [of ATCV-1] were modest, but significant.”
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