Jokes aside, recent media reports are stating that there may actually be a “stupid” virus, and that scientists in the U.S. appear to have found it accidentally.
At the center of attention is a study published in late October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) by researchers at Johns Hopkins Medical School and the University of Nebraska. According to media reports, scientists discovered “A virus that infects human brains and makes us more stupid,” and that scientists, “…stumbled upon the discovery when they were undertaking an unrelated study into throat microbes.”
So did these scientists actually discover a virus that makes us more “stupid?” In their original study, scientists at John Hopkins University found a virus known as chlorovirus ATCV-1 in the throats of 40 out of 90 people sampled. Initially this finding was of interest because this particular virus was previously known to infect only algae, not humans. Upon further testing, there appeared to be a correlation between the infection of ATCV-1 and subsequent performance on cognitive tests given to both humans and mice.
Dr. Robert Yolken, a virologist and lead investigator in the original study from John Hopkins, said “This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition.” He also commented that “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.”
But Dr. David Sanders, a Purdue University virologist and expert on Ebola, commented that “…he would need to see this replicated before he’d believe the claim.” He further noted that “…samples from the patients might have been contaminated with the algae virus,” leading to possible wrongful links. In addition, Dr. Sanders questioned the peer review behind the paper in PNAS, stating “Something is wrong here…I don’t know how the experiments happened. This is a whole bunch of random data stitched together with little real basis for making any conclusions.”
The human body contains trillions of viruses, bacteria and fungi. Many are harmless, but this new study raises the possibility that some may have a detrimental effect, including on our cognitive functions.
As the media continues to report that the “stupid” virus has been found, Dr. Sanders cautions that we must not jump to conclusions too quickly. He points out that while the scientists “…found statistically significant but very small differences on several of the tests—including measures of visual information processing speed and attention,” he “couldn’t find the word ‘stupid’ in any form” in the study, meaning those scientists never claimed to have found the “stupid” virus.
While not ruling out that the ATCV-1 virus may be having deleterious effects on us, further studies involving larger sample sizes need to be conducted. Just as importantly, how did this virus make the jump from algae to humans and, if it does turn out to be “harmful,” how do we protect ourselves from it?
Regardless of the outcome, more research into how microorganisms affect us behaviorally and cognitively is warranted. At this point, we can’t risk being “stupid” one way or the other.
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