A new virus found in algae in rivers, lakes and ponds could infect human beings and seriously slow brain activity, according to a group of scientists.
Scientists found that people infected with the virus, called ACTV-1, were cognitively 10 to 20 percent slower than people not infected by it.
“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition,” Robert Yolkin, the director of the Stanley Neurovirology Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, said of ACTV-1, or Acanthocystis turfacea chlorella virus 1. Yolkin was part of a team of researchers that discovered the chlorovirus in the mouths of human test subjects.
The researchers discovered that persons infected with ACTV-1 processed visual information in their brains at a rate that was 10 percent slower than uninfected people. The researchers from Johns Hopkins and the University of Nebraska made the discovery “while taking throat swabs from healthy subjects during a study on cognitive functioning,” according to a news release.
Those who tested positive took longer to connect numbers together and had shorter attention spans, said a report on the research in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The same research found that ACTV-1 impacts people equally regardless of age, race, sex or health.
It previously was thought the virus affected only algae.
“Chloroviruses are worldwide,” said senior author James Van Etten of the University of Nebraska Center for Virology. “They’re very common among inland bodies of fresh water such as lakes and ponds.
“But I don’t know of many examples of viruses jumping from one kingdom to another. If this turns out to be true, this is quite rare and a total surprise.”
Virus Could Impact the Brain’s DNA
Researchers examined 92 supposedly healthy people in Baltimore and found the virus in 43 percent of them, according to ScienceMag.org. Those who had the virus performed 10 percent worse in visual processing tests – for instance, drawing a line connecting random numbers.
“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition,” said lead investigator Robert Yolken, director of the Stanley Neurovirology Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. “Many physiological differences between person A and person B are encoded in the set of genes each inherits from parents, yet some of these differences are fueled by the various microorganisms we harbor and the way they interact with our genes.”
Scientists also deliberately infected a group of mice. When the mice were killed and examined, the researchers found changes in the activity of almost 1,300 genes.
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