The Insanity Virus

Schizophrenia has long been blamed on bad genes or even bad parents. The real culprit, they claim, is a virus that lives entwined in every person's DNA.

Sixty million years ago, a lemurlike animal—an early ancestor of humans and monkeys—contracted an infection. It may not have made the lemur ill, but the retrovirus spread into the animal’s testes (or perhaps its ovaries), and once there, it struck the jackpot: It slipped inside one of the rare germ line cells that produce sperm and eggs. When the lemur reproduced, that retrovirus rode into the next generation aboard the lucky sperm and then moved on from generation to generation, nestled in the DNA. “It’s a rare, random event,” says Robert Belshaw, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford in England. “Over the last 100 million years, there have been only maybe 50 times when a retrovirus has gotten into our genome and proliferated.” [...]

Through this research, a rough account is emerging of how HERV-W could trigger diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and MS. Although the body works hard to keep its endogenous retroviruses under tight control, infections around the time of birth destabilize this tense standoff. [...]

The first, pivotal infection by toxoplasmosis or influenza (and subsequent flaring up of HERV-W) might happen shortly before or after birth. That would explain the birth-month effect: Flu infections happen more often in winter. The initial infection could then set off a lifelong pattern in which later infections reawaken HERV-W, causing more inflammation and eventually symptoms. This process explains why schizophrenics gradually lose brain tissue. It explains why the disease waxes and wanes like a chronic infection. And it could explain why some schizophrenics suffer their first psychosis after a mysterious, monolike illness.

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