The Virus That Could Be Making You Dumber

By Carl Engelking | November 10, 2014 3:51 pm

algae virus

You may have heard the saying, “You can’t catch stupid” — meant to console you that idiocy is not contagious. But, as it turns out, in a small way it might be.

Scientists have discovered that a foreign virus in some peoples’ throats parallels with those individuals’ poorer cognitive performance. And when mice are given this virus, previously thought to only infect algae, they were slower to learn a maze.

Surprise Virus

Scientists stumbled on their discovery while collecting throat swab samples from people to assemble a virome — a genetic profile of all the viruses circulating through our bodies. During the analysis, researchers were surprised to find DNA of chlorella virus ATCV-1, a virus common in aquatic environments but not thought to infect humans or animals.

What’s more, the virus was common: It was detected in 40 out of the 92 participants. It didn’t appear that age, sex, race or any other external factors affected a person’s chance of harboring the virus.

Dumbed Down

Fortunately for researchers, their original experiment included standardized tests to measure participants’ visual processing and motor skills. So, with the new variable — ATCV-1 — in the forefront, scientists switched gears to examine whether the newly discovered virus affected cognitive performance. And they found it did: people infected with the virus performed significantly worse on cognitive tests than did their uninfected counterparts.

That warranted further study, so esearchers then tested how the virus affected mice. They infected 30 mice with ATCV-1 and put them through a series of maze tests. These mice took much longer to explore a novel maze setup than mice in the control group, researchers reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Mind Control

ATCV-1 is common in most inland waters such as those around Baltimore, where the study was conducted. Therefore, exposure to the virus is probably common, but why some people acquire infection while others don’t is still unknown. Answering this question, researchers say, will guide future studies on ATCV-1.

In the meantime, it’s a fascinating and freaky example of how microbes can mess with our brains. Robert Yolken, the virologist who led the study, told The Independent,“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition.”


CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain, top posts
  • disqus_8NvNH4baa0

    Baltimore, Md. I wonder if they supply the water to Congress in DC.

    • Rebecca McDonald Rinker

      That’s funny! Thanks for the chuckle!

    • Overburdened_Planet

      I had the same thought before I saw your comment!

    • David

      Obama and the dems must have drank gallons off this stuff

      • John Hartnett

        and the Rethuglicans mainline the stuff…

      • Mike Sherline

        ……must have DRANK? Looks like you’ve had your share, too.

    • J_R_K

      Good question …. maybe they should check the White House first.

  • Christos Themistocles Fotinako

    So, did anyone relevant to this study consider the potential benefits of finding a way to get rid of this virus in people or did they all contract the virus during the study?

  • Sara Higgins

    I would like to know where in Baltimore this study was done. Was it done at Johns Hopkins or was it done at random around the county? Seeing as how I live in Bmore I would prefer to have more information….

    • Gordon Burgett

      It may be too late, Sara. Those with the virus probably can’t find the water…

  • JJ

    I don’t usually deal with bouts of hypochondria after reading such articles, but NOW I am.

  • bradford cutler

    Having a plant virus infect an animal
    is quite rare but I have heard of it before. The fact that these
    animals can contract and accommodate an infection without any severe
    health effects indicate to me that this is might be a long on going
    plant/animal pathogen relationship whereas the animal might serve the
    virus chances of survival by assisting in its spread to other bodies
    of water just by drinking the algae laden waters to gain exposure and
    subsequent spread thereafter..

    • TomD

      That sounds smart. You must not have any firsthand experience with this subject. 😉

      • bradford cutler

        and the use of intermediate hosts are instrumental for some pathogens
        to spread and survive in nature. It was my observation based on the
        lack of a severe immune response by the host that it seemed to
        accommodate the pathogen quite well and that would facilitate its
        spread within the ecosystem. Any acute infection would be
        counterproductive to it’s spread and survival in nature and as I said
        would “indicate” and that is not a conclusion. So how do you
        think that this virus spreads and/or persists in nature?

  • Ilene Marlett

    Conspiracy theory: Could the government be testing this or is this really a natural occurance?

  • Michael Riley

    Inland waters – Great Lakes too? Would be nice too know.

  • Eric Lipps

    Now if only they can find one that makes people smarter. . . .

    This reminds me of the old novel IQ 83 by . . . I forget.

  • William Burnett

    The human body is mostly made up of water, so it stands to reason that a virus or pathogen could infiltrate us that way much like legionnaires and water parasites that gain access to your bloodstream, sometimes even attaching or embedding itself in your brain (being that that is where much of the water in the body is purest).

  • Longmire

    More than likely virus affects blood oxygen levels

  • TomD

    The really big question is, does the viral infection clear, or is the victim infected for life? “Ignorance can be cured, but stupid is forever” might take on a whole new meaning.

  • Carol Clark

    That explains a lot about most people in the town I moved to.

  • Kip Rode

    So a vaccine against this virus could be considered a “Smart” vaccine?

  • Karen Boyer

    Can people contract this virus by eating chlorella powder… eg that is sold in health food stores?

  • DodgeMiniVan

    There must be a great deal of truth to the statement, “perhaps it’s something in the water they drink”!

  • Pierrette

    Lol some of the comments here are hilarious!! Quite a nice change from the trolls.

  • Davidk

    I see… Hope doctors make vaccine fast cos it took control over too many people

  • somitcw

    Alzheimer’s Disease clusters around bodies of water.
    Any connection?

  • leticia mendez

    This could affect us all and we might not even know it.

  • Marina Parker

    I believe, no, I know some people who must have contracted this virus! Finally I understand how some people I’ve know are just stupid beyond belief! Ex: a flat earth believer, Christians who think they’ve got the only “right” religion and openly condemn those who are not like the 🙄…so many more but point made.


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