Algal virus found slowing down the brains of humans

Nov 1, 2014

Image: blackboard1965/Shutterstock

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 SciencesAs Pennisi notes, “The effects [of ATCV-1] were modest, but significant.”

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8 comments on “Algal virus found slowing down the brains of humans

  • Creepy.
    Because of the effects and the quite substantial presence of the virus in the sample group. It would be interesting to know whether that massive ~40% of “contaminated” individuals is common or just something that occurs around Baltimore.

    It is also not very clear if the virus actually infects humans (and lab mice, because they tested on them too and it looks like that the virus does “wierd stuff” in their brains as well, in roughly the same areas of cognition) or just creates interference in the gene expression… Sadly, there’s only the abstract of the article freely accessible.

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  • 6
    Light Wave says:

    This puts me in mind of the fungal parasite that enslave ants, when they are first infected they continue normally until the full moon or some such trigger – when they robotically march up to the top of the highest leaf or branch and then as if being rendered a zombie wasn’t bad enough the parasite’s ultimate party trick is to blast through its hosts head with a fungal like spike in a final act of ant sacrifice …..I hope nothing like that could happen to humans…but Ergot Fungus and Religious delusions seem to go hand in hand…dare I say more….

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