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The Insanity Virus?
November 12, 2010 10:01 AM   Subscribe

New research hints that schizophrenia and other mental illness may be caused by "endogenous retroviruses" stored in our DNA and activated by common infections such as CMV, toxoplamosis, or the flu
posted by T.D. Strange (98 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
Well, shit.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:07 AM on November 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


Nature's little Trojan Horse.
posted by banished at 10:08 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Welll said, stars cars!
posted by Mister_A at 10:08 AM on November 12, 2010


Coughs and sneezes spread the disintegration of the process of thinking and of emotional responsiveness.
posted by schwa at 10:09 AM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


1. Synthesize "Insanity Virus"
2. Brand it "Rage" and get Danny Boyle to make a series of movies about it.
3. ???????????????
4. Profit!
posted by The Michael The at 10:11 AM on November 12, 2010


Well that would certainly explain the links these things have to both genetics AND viral infections.
posted by DU at 10:11 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


You were sneezing when you typed that?
posted by Mister_A at 10:11 AM on November 12, 2010


Leaving aside the merits of the actual science (which I know nothing about), that's some fantastic science writing.
posted by empath at 10:14 AM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


I'd read about the toxoplasmosis/schizophrenia connection some years ago. What fascinated me about this article is how the retrovirus got into the genome and stayed there.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:20 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


"endogenous retroviruses"

AKA Dead canine flares
posted by vectr at 10:20 AM on November 12, 2010


Great, more to worry about.
posted by uni verse at 10:21 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow.
posted by zizzle at 10:21 AM on November 12, 2010


We for one welcome our virus overlord.
posted by Not Supplied at 10:22 AM on November 12, 2010 [5 favorites]


“The psychiatrists thought I was psychotic myself,” Torrey says. “Some of them still do.”

The sooner we realize that the brain is a biological organ, subject to disease, malfunction and evolution just like all the other ones, the better off we'll all be.
posted by DU at 10:23 AM on November 12, 2010 [40 favorites]


There is an interesting aspect of evolutionary theory which tends to support the belief that many diseases previously thought to be genetic or degenerative, are actually related to infectious illness. Evolution functions very efficiently (over long periods of time) to improve the ability of organisms to survive and to reproduce. Diseases of whatever sort are a liability which, in evolutionary terms, should be selected against and should become very rare. Yet some diseases such as schizophrenia are not at all rare. Why do they persist? Pathogens survive and reproduce by making other organisms sick. Their evolutionary success is in conflict with that of their host species. So as we are (in effect) evolving toward health, other organisms are evolving in ways that defeat us. And considering that some viruses have managed to incorporate themselves into human DNA, this is a very difficult problem.

But in theory, in some future high-tech utopia, all humans could be born with fully engineered genetics, in which every gene is carefully designed for best effect. And viruses will be eliminated from the environment. Of course, there is no guarantee that technology will ever advance to that point, or even that technological civilization as we know it will survive in the long term. The future remains an unfolding mystery.
posted by grizzled at 10:29 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science is so awesome.

Some day in the not-to-distant future, our progeny will look down on our primitive view of diseases in the same way that we laugh at our ancestors (blaming poor moral fiber and the like) before the discovery of viruses and bacteria.
posted by muddgirl at 10:32 AM on November 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


Looking ahead, better prenatal care or vaccinations could prevent the first, early infections that put some people on a path to schizophrenia. For high-risk babies who do get sick, early treatment might prevent psychosis from developing two decades later.

Great, another thing to add to the "Obvious Ideas That Will Never, Ever Happen In The Perpetually Short-Sighted US"!
posted by DU at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2010


1. Synthesize "Insanity Virus"
2. Brand it "Rage" and get Danny Boyle to make a series of movies about it.
3. ???????????????
4. Profit!
posted by The Michael The


Step 3 is "Wait 28 Days."
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:40 AM on November 12, 2010 [16 favorites]


Diseases of whatever sort are a liability which, in evolutionary terms, should be selected against and should become very rare.

But they're only selected against if they inhibit reproduction. Many chronic diseases with a genetic component (lupus, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) can make life suck (and in some cases kill a person) but they don't prevent people from reproducing, so they're not selected against. Schizophrenia frequently doesn't hit until people are in their twenties, so even if the disease is totally disabling from then on (and that's not necessarily true) it's perfectly possible for them to have already have had kids before getting sick.

All that said, this article is really cool, and in general epigenetics is the hot field in biology now as "The Central Dogma" slowly crumbles into only one aspect of the phenotype.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:41 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Pathogens survive and reproduce by making other organisms sick.

This is actually not true. The sick-making is a side effect. Generally viruses, etc only make their hosts sick when they are relatively new to the species. Killing your host is not good evolutionary strategy.

Human beings have such a bad problem with disease because we're the only species that has close, sustained contact with large numbers of other animal species, which keep crossing over and killing large numbers of people. The diseases in their 'natural' hosts aren't nearly as pathogenic.
posted by empath at 10:41 AM on November 12, 2010 [7 favorites]


The voices called from passing cars as Steven drove to work. They ridiculed his failure to find a girlfriend. Rolling up the car windows and blasting the radio did nothing to silence them. Other voices pursued Steven at home. Three voices called through the windows of his house: two angry men and one woman who begged the men to stop arguing. Another voice thrummed out of the stereo speakers, giving a running commentary on the songs of Steely Dan or Led Zeppelin, which Steven played at night after work.
There's such a thin line between typical internal dialogue and mental illness. Though I'm not schizophrenic, most of what's described in that quote reminds me of my teen years (and echoed through my twenties.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 10:42 AM on November 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


If this is true, I wonder why it tends to so much more frequently manifest in twenty-something men than in other groups.
posted by enn at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


The sooner we realize that the brain is a biological organ, subject to disease, malfunction and evolution just like all the other ones, the better off we'll all be.

Is 300 BC soon enough?
posted by Sys Rq at 10:48 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


perhaps there are endogenous viruses unique to the Y chromosome.
posted by vortex genie 2 at 10:50 AM on November 12, 2010


The sick-making is a side effect. Generally viruses, etc only make their hosts sick when they are relatively new to the species. Killing your host is not good evolutionary strategy.

There's a lot of ground between "making sick" and "killing". Some of that ground is profitable. For instance, if a virus could make you eject saliva and other fluids at high velocity, it could spread faster. Fortunately, no known virii do that. HAMBURGER
posted by DU at 10:52 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


I found the article extremely fascinating but this sentence is cringeworthy. "In a week the machine churns out the equivalent of six human genomes—enough raw data to fill 40 computer hard drives." We have commonly understood measurements of data size! Use them!
posted by haveanicesummer at 10:52 AM on November 12, 2010 [12 favorites]


I've never formally studied psychology, but here are some thoughts:

The difference between and is that a mental illness will have a much greater effect on your life, to my understanding. Not all sad people have depression, not all distractable people have ADD, and not all people with internal dialogue have schizophrenia. Some of 'em do.

What constitutes a "mental illness" is going to depend on the society in which you live, too. There is a realm of accepted social norms. Everyone is unique, but if your uniqueness falls outside the realm of accepted social norms, you're labeled with a "mental illness."

Must run, ciao!

Oh! P.S. We're not the only species that has close, sustained contact with large numbers of other animal species. I'm sure somebody can give you a counter-example.

posted by aniola at 10:52 AM on November 12, 2010


The sooner we realize that the brain is a biological organ, subject to disease, malfunction and evolution just like all the other ones, the better off we'll all be.

You keep on like that and you will be a target for re-education.
posted by mmrtnt at 10:57 AM on November 12, 2010


For instance, if a virus could make you eject saliva and other fluids at high velocity, it could spread faster.

These is true, but I guess my point is that it's not necessary to make your host sick to survive and spread, and we're fully of viruses and bacteria that don't.
posted by empath at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2010


Step 3 is "Wait 28 Days."

What if the voices in my head don't want to wait that long?

What if the voices in my head WANT TO PUT MY EVIL INSIDE OF YOU????
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2010



What constitutes a "mental illness" is going to depend on the society in which you live, too. There is a realm of accepted social norms. Everyone is unique, but if your uniqueness falls outside the realm of accepted social norms, you're labeled with a "mental illness."


Many cases of schizophrenia are actually fronto-temporal dementia. This means brain cells are dying off. There really is no "It's all relative!" argument to be made there.
posted by vacapinta at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


The suggested link between schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis and a postulated influenza trigger is interesting when you consider the epidemiology of MS with regards to the equator - more frequent occurences the further away you get, with the exception of certain localized ethnic groups.
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:01 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


DNA is so frustrating. I flagged this and moved on ages ago. Where the hell is the damn mod?
posted by srboisvert at 11:06 AM on November 12, 2010


Thanks much for the post--as one who spent their professional life working with people who have major and persistent mental illnesses the continuing research is heartening--Thanks also for the quality of the posts. Sincerely appreciated
posted by rmhsinc at 11:06 AM on November 12, 2010


Something left out is that some endogenous retroviruses are functional. If you think about it, they're a perfectly valid means of cell-cell communication. My recollection is that some of the first discovered are selectively activated during placenta formation, and removing them prevents successful implantation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2010


toxoplasmosis

I knew my cats were driving me crazy.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


This is up there with the microchimera thing (fetuses give women little parts of their DNA and then the women get autoimmune disorders) in terms of coolness (and me not entirely understanding...ness).

My understanding of the virulence of various pathogens is that they become more virulent (or it doesn't change) if they are spread by a vector--like mosquitos spreading malaria. Doesn't kill the mosquito, so it can keep reproducing with or without people.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:23 AM on November 12, 2010


People who are mentally ill have a hard road. Just because they are the last disabled group it is socially acceptable to make fun of doesn't mean it is right for us to do so.

In other words, lets all keep the LOLcrazy to ourselves.
posted by Antidisestablishmentarianist at 11:24 AM on November 12, 2010 [15 favorites]


A refreshing perspective. A long time ago, my brother caught or became or developed schz. problem. One treatment at the time was electric shock treatments...horrible and subsequently stopped using (though they have now made a comeback, though more sophisticated).
Freud was at the time "big" in psychology in the US and so of course my poor parents assumed they had done some horrible thing to have a son break down this way (they were very good parents). Guilt galore.

What I don't understand: I had believe, right or not, that this illness happens (1) mostly to males, (2)usually at about 17-20 years of age. If that is so, how does that fit in with the notion of viruses, or are we to believe they spring forth after a certain number of years?
posted by Postroad at 11:24 AM on November 12, 2010


virii

The plural of virus is viruses. Virii is wrong for several reasons in Latin, and it likewise makes no sense in English. In Latin virus is a mass noun (it means poison or venom) and had no plural form in classical Latin. If you forced it to be plural, it still wouldn't be 'viri' but rather 'vira' or possibly 'virua.' At least in the nominative case.

Regardless, the word virus in the modern sense is a purely English word and thus follows English pluralization rules. Just like we speak of electrons and not electra or ηλεκτρα or something because the word means a 'negatively charged subatomic particle' not 'amber.'

My apologies for the rant, but that kind of "aren't we clever but actually completely wrong" jargon really gets my goat.
posted by jedicus at 11:25 AM on November 12, 2010 [31 favorites]


Diseases of whatever sort are a liability which, in evolutionary terms, should be selected against and should become very rare

As hydropsyche said, that's only true if they inhibit reproduction; but I wanted to add to that, because it's not even necessarily true if these diseases do inhibit reproduction.

Nobody believes that the genetic component of schizophrenia boils down a single gene; it's an interaction of multiple genes. Schizophrenic alleles might be adaptive in the absence of certain environmental factors (like the presence of viruses, for instance), and/or they may only be maladaptive only when all present in the same organism, and adaptive when present in isolation.

The simplest real world example of natural selection favoring disease is sickle cell disease, which I'm going to assume you're familiar with. Mental illness is certainly more complicated than sickle cell, but it's easy to imagine how elements of mental illness might be adaptive. Imagine if alleles of one gene determined how resistant you were to self-deception, ostensibly an adaptive trait, and another gene determined how much shame you feel at failure, again, an adaptive trait in that it's maybe essential to learning-- but get the strongest versions of each, and you're prone to crippling depression.
posted by nathan v at 11:26 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


My apologies for the rant, but that kind of "aren't we clever but actually completely wrong" jargon really gets my goat.

Come closer so I can sneeze on you.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:30 AM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


What constitutes a "mental illness" is going to depend on the society in which you live, too. There is a realm of accepted social norms. Everyone is unique, but if your uniqueness falls outside the realm of accepted social norms, you're labeled with a "mental illness."

Having worked in a mental institution, I can pretty confidently say that falling outside accepted social norms is a pretty damn mild way to put what is going on with most of these people. Musicians, artists, hippies, monks, etc. "fall outside the realm of accepted social norms." Generally speaking, people in mental institutions are sick.

I used to believe this sort of claptrap until I realized that it's really hard to function, period, if you are walking around arguing with the spies they put in your head, or terrified of everyone to the extent that you can't go into a store or even walk out the door, or can't get from your bed to the bathroom because you skipped a step or messed up the count for the number of times you have to touch the doorframe on your way. Mental illness is real.

Ignoring this little derail, I thought this was a pretty well-written, fascinating article that opened my mind to not just how schizophrenia may work, but how our bodies work in general. I also really hope this can lead to a solution for diseases like schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.
posted by dubitable at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2010 [32 favorites]


Virii is wrong for several reasons in Latin, and it likewise makes no sense in English.

I'm glad I got a bite on that, because it lets me move to Troll Level 2: "virons"
posted by DU at 11:41 AM on November 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


ANECDATUM
posted by griphus at 11:42 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


What if the voices in my head WANT TO PUT MY EVIL INSIDE OF YOU????

Keep it in your pants.
posted by dibblda at 11:42 AM on November 12, 2010


I could die happy if the world just stopped using the term "mental illness." Bipolar disorder, diabetes, lung cancer, schizophrenia, endometriosis, OCD, and AIDS are illnesses, period. When was the last time someone contracted mumps, and people stage whispered, "I'm afraid he's . . . physically ill."

Plenty of "physical" illnesses originating in body parts below the neck include "mental" symptoms, and vice versa, so the distinction is stupid and meaningless.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:43 AM on November 12, 2010 [16 favorites]


ANECDATUM
posted by griphus


Damn near killed 'um.
posted by haveanicesummer at 11:43 AM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ok, I am going to send this article to my sister the molecular biologist so she can make it even simpler for me to understand, because I am totally blown away by this and want to make sure I understand it all. Thank you for posting it.

What constitutes a "mental illness" is going to depend on the society in which you live, too. There is a realm of accepted social norms. Everyone is unique, but if your uniqueness falls outside the realm of accepted social norms, you're labeled with a "mental illness."

You are right up to a certain point. There are many people who's "uniqueness" as you so charmingly put it, makes their everyday lives VERY hard to live. Now you can put this on a spectrum for probably every kind of behaviour, e.g. some people have treasured this one pen all their lives, and they take good care of it, then there are others who have a hard time getting rid of anything that has sentimental value, then there are others who have a hard time throwing out things like rotten food. Obviously, I'm missing a lot of points on that continuum. Similarly, you can have people who really don't have much of an imaginative inner world, then there are people who daydream a lot, then there are people who can't tell the difference between what they are imagining and what is going on in the real world. You can go on and on and on, but for practically every behaviour that could be "merely idiosyncratic" there is a point at which it becomes a huge obstacle in the way of functioning every day. It's not just a question of society being unable to cope with difference.

Finally:

The jokes people are making here about mental illness and paranoid delusions are really not funny. Please knock it off. Many of us who have personal experience with mental illness ourselves, among our friends and/or family, or in our work with sufferers of mental illness find this deeply painful. I repeat. It isn't funny. Please don't do this.
posted by bardophile at 11:51 AM on November 12, 2010 [17 favorites]


What I don't understand: I had believe, right or not, that this illness happens (1) mostly to males, (2)usually at about 17-20 years of age. If that is so, how does that fit in with the notion of viruses, or are we to believe they spring forth after a certain number of years?

With (1) it's been reasonably well documented that behavioral symptoms and diagnosis of mental illness is influenced by culture and gender to some degree. So it's possible that this particular virus does affect women but with different symptoms that are not recognized as classic schizophrenia.

On (2), the proposed model is that the virus is subclinical unless something happens, like an early childhood illness, to trigger an autoimmune response. The article points to evidence that schizophrenic adults may have demonstrated mild warning signs in early childhood. And the fact that many mental illnesses appear to explode in late adolescence correlates nicely with the fact that there's a spurt of brain development especially in the frontal lobe at this time.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:54 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


You are right up to a certain point. There are many people who's "uniqueness" as you so charmingly put it, makes their everyday lives VERY hard to live.

Yep. There's a lot of "we're overdiagnosed and overmedicated" stuff going around and, sure, there are problems with that. But regardless of how being unable to leave one's bed due to fear of the outdoors or delusions of god-knows-what would be accepted somewhere else, if an individual is to remain functional in their real society in the real world, in needs to be addressed on the basis of illness. Sometimes, there's no room for relativism.

Today I sat across from a woman on the train who alternated between what sounded like a perfectly normal albeit one-sided conversation with herself and quite literally screaming her lungs out (she woke me up) about death and murder. Sure, uniqueness, fine. Still miserable for her and for society.
posted by griphus at 11:58 AM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sure, uniqueness, fine. Still miserable for her and for society.

Sure. But the state of the art in treatment options is not great. Is it less miserable than locking her up in a cell for the rest of her life? For society and her fellow commuters, it is. For her, I really doubt it.
posted by enn at 12:02 PM on November 12, 2010


Having worked in a mental institution, I can pretty confidently say that falling outside accepted social norms is a pretty damn mild way to put what is going on with most of these people. Musicians, artists, hippies, monks, etc. "fall outside the realm of accepted social norms."

"Musicians, artists, hippies, monks, etc." don't get locked up just for being "Musicians, artists, hippies, monks, etc." Wilde did get locked up for being gay. There's "outside the realm of accepted social norms" and outside the realm of accepted social norms. And, historically (or across different cultures), sometimes being outside the realm of accepted social norms has resulted in people being labeled mentally ill when in another place and time, they wouldn't be.
posted by juv3nal at 12:07 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I've been following this from the MS side of things for a while, and I'm hopeful that GeNeuro may be on the right track with a potential treatment for MS and other diseases possibly related to endogenous retroviruses.
posted by gimli at 12:11 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


sometimes being outside the realm of accepted social norms has resulted in people being labeled mentally ill when in another place and time, they wouldn't be.

And now this is getting really far away from the point of the post. Your point is absolutely valid, but really does not have a lot to do with whether schizophrenia is caused by genes, bad parenting, a virus, a combination of two or more of those, or something else altogether.
posted by bardophile at 12:11 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


haveanicesummer: "I found the article extremely fascinating but this sentence is cringeworthy. "In a week the machine churns out the equivalent of six human genomes—enough raw data to fill 40 computer hard drives." We have commonly understood measurements of data size! Use them"

Worse than that, it's somewhat inaccurate. A human genome is about 3 GB — somewhat less than that with storage tricks — so six genomes handily fits on any off-the-shelf thumb drive, let alone 40 full-sized computer hard drives.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:11 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sure. But the state of the art in treatment options is not great.

I don't have any answers for that, nor do I think locking that woman away is the right thing to do. Again, she woke me up as opposed to, say, assault me. All I'm saying is that she is unquestionably ill. Not weird or unique or not compatible with our society. We're not being bigots by judging these people to have sicknesses that unfortunately we have not yet discovered sources nor cures for.
posted by griphus at 12:15 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Human rabies. Probably gets you to spread itself all over town.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:18 PM on November 12, 2010


And, historically (or across different cultures), sometimes being outside the realm of accepted social norms has resulted in people being labeled mentally ill when in another place and time, they wouldn't be.

I'm not disagreeing. I'm aware that homosexuality, for example, used to be listed in the DSM. But there seems to be a mainstream narrative that implies this happens vastly more than is (at least currently) the case. It pops up in every discussion like this and it is, more or less, statistically pretty small to the point that it's not really a useful thing to bring up when talking about mentally ill folks: it obscures the reality of the sufferers and shifts the discussion somewhere that, in my opinion, is rather pointless.

The subject of this article is how some biologists are investigating the possibility that there is a viral cause for schizophrenia, and furthermore that virus may somehow be embedded in our own DNA (as I understood it, please correct me if I misunderstood). Furthermore, that has implications for other illnesses like multiple sclerosis, and it can explain why schizophrenia can be triggered in a certain way by other illnesses.

That considered, I don't see what point there is in the (seemingly inevitable) discussion that pops up regarding whether or not mental illness is some byproduct of being alienated by society. I guess I'm just tired of talking about this after seeing families mourning over the living death of their sons, daughters, parents, grandparents, etc.
posted by dubitable at 12:19 PM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Keep it in your pants

Schizz in your pants?

posted by zippy at 12:23 PM on November 12, 2010


as one who spent their professional life working with people who have major and persistent mental illnesses [...]

I'm sure it seems that way at times.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:26 PM on November 12, 2010


Can we still say "Winklevii"? Cos that cracks me up.
posted by everichon at 12:32 PM on November 12, 2010


Many people cite deinstitutionalization in the early 60s as a cause of the "homelessness epidemic" NYC went through for many years (think bag ladies and the yelling woman mentioned earlier in the thread). Maybe these were unique gentle souls who didn't need to be in an institution, maybe not. But it's sad as hell all around and any step we make towards keeping people funtional is great.
posted by Ad hominem at 12:34 PM on November 12, 2010


Can someone who knows more biology than I do explain a bit more about the potential implications of these findings?
posted by bardophile at 12:35 PM on November 12, 2010


When we talk about societal norms and what was once considered unacceptable behavior that could result in imprisonment or unwanted treatment, the difference between homosexuality and mental illness (to me) is this: If homosexuality had been always been acceptable and never been viewed as outside of the norm, I'm guessing that it wouldn't have caused homosexuals any mental anguish to be homosexual. But if all of the taboos against mental illness were to melt away tomorrow, people who are schizophrenic or bipolar would not be happy, because... it's miserable. They're miserable. Even if their behavior were considered well within acceptable societal norms. that doesn't mean it's not harmful. Maybe not to society, but to them.

I'm saying this as someone with bipolar disorder. The taboos surrounding my illness are only part of the problem. I would even say that they're not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is, that without proper medication, I spent half my life unhappy and wanting to die. I may be wrong, but aside from societal pressure, I don't think there's anything intrinsic to homosexuality that makes people unhappy and suicidal.
posted by Evangeline at 12:40 PM on November 12, 2010 [16 favorites]


The sooner we realize that the brain is a biological organ, subject to disease, malfunction and evolution just like all the other ones, the better off we'll all be.

Of course it is. It cools the blood.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:44 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


thank you bardophile. the anguish my family suffered for the many years my brother was in what was then called an "insane asylum" was horrible. I still recall with great sadness visiting my brother and speaking to the head nurse, who casually told me that had they had the drugs back then that they have now my brother would not have to have been locked away for those many many years but could have been in a half-way house or perhaps even at home. In passing, recall when many of these places closed down and the inmates were "set free," only to live on the streets and not having or taking meds that might have helped them.this was noted in a comment above.And certainly those ill homeless contributed to the repulsion many regular folks had for the homeless in general. Now we have of course homeless because of economics, as well as runaways and PTSD etc.
posted by Postroad at 12:49 PM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]


Worse than that, it's somewhat inaccurate. A human genome is about 3 GB — somewhat less than that with storage tricks — so six genomes handily fits on any off-the-shelf thumb drive, let alone 40 full-sized computer hard drives.

Not quite -- you can't boil down the sequence to a long ASCII string without a lot more work. The current next-gen sequencing technologies have a high error rate, so you have to sequence the genome many times over to get confidence in any one base call. If you store the raw image/chromatogram/electrical signals from the sequencing, the amount of data will be much higher.

Here's an example where the semi-raw filtered data from one individual genome was 250Gb.

Many chronic diseases with a genetic component (lupus, Type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis) can make life suck (and in some cases kill a person) but they don't prevent people from reproducing, so they're not selected against.

If late onset, yes, but even if they have some small impact on reproductive fitness, they should be rooted out fairly fast barring external factors or some other hidden selective advantage in the past (my population genetics is rusty, but if you do calculations where a gene gives even a 2% fitness decrease, it doesn't take many generations for the gene to be selected against in a fixed # population).

Also, Type 1 diabetes (the kind that children get) was a fatal illness until the discovery of insulin in the last century. Type 2 would have been a lot rarer due to physical activity and its late onset. Type 2's prevalence is probably due to the fact that we never evolved in an environment where physical activity was near-absent.
posted by benzenedream at 12:52 PM on November 12, 2010


On the topic of "mental" illness, can anyone tell me if this guy is on to anything or if he's a kook? I can't find a good review one way or the other.

There's no wikipedia article on him and I find a preliminary scanning of his stuff kind of interesting, but he also doesn't explain what, exactly, his PhD is in and it could be a "Dr." Laura kind of situation.

The post here was brilliant and blew my mind.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:58 PM on November 12, 2010


I'm taking a family education and support class at NAMI for people with relatives of mental illnesses. A few weeks ago we covered the 'what could cause these diseases' portion of the curriculum. The possibilities listed - dna mutation, virus, etc and what could trigger those viruses or mutations or whatever were comprehensively disheartening. Usually we have a pretty good group of people - there are tears in every session, but a lot of joking and commiserating as well - but that one class was heart-stompingly depressing.
It's great that indifferent mothering is not the 'cause' of these illnesses any more, but in some ways knowing that it's the result of a virus/etc it's even worse. As if we didn't feel powerless enough before.
posted by 8dot3 at 1:05 PM on November 12, 2010


bardophile: Can someone who knows more biology than I do explain a bit more about the potential implications of these findings?

Best case? Possibly a prophylactic vaccine. Failing that, early identification of at-risk people in childhood and early adolescence for possible treatment with antiviral and/or immunosuppressive drugs. But that's years away even if it is possible.

But even without prevention or cure, it's possible that early detection and treatment might save a lot of people a great deal of pain compared with a typical case where a person doesn't get any treatment at all until they're profoundly miserable and in a deep dark hole of problems.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:06 PM on November 12, 2010


Can someone who knows more biology than I do explain a bit more about the potential implications of these findings?

I certainly won't claim to knowing biology, but it would seem to me that a pathogen theory for mental illness might make it amenable to public health and epidemiologic techniques. Are there population patterns in mental illnesses, geographic ones or social contact ones? There might not ahve been as much impetus to look for those before. That might tell us more about at risk popluations. It might tell us which new vaccines might be useful (eg toxoplasmosis) for reducing mental illness.

Genetic screening might make it possible to weigh vaccination risks. If you had a kid that was at risk for developing a mental illness later in life, would you consider giving that child a vaccine, which comes with it's own risk, which could prevent the illness? Would you consider taking a profilactic medicine (like an antiviral drug) for travel to an area where a trigger disease was common in the general population?
posted by bonehead at 1:14 PM on November 12, 2010


As always when this topic (possible infectious causes for things we didn't think were infection-related) comes up, I will point you to Plague Time by Paul Ewald as a fascinating read.
posted by adamdschneider at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's great that indifferent mothering is not the 'cause' of these illnesses any more, but in some ways knowing that it's the result of a virus/etc it's even worse. As if we didn't feel powerless enough before.

8dot3, to me this is actually hopeful; it sounds like these scientists are actually, finally starting to get at a possible solution to schizophrenia. To me this is extraordinarily heartening. For example, read what KirkJobSluder says.
posted by dubitable at 1:28 PM on November 12, 2010


Not quite -- you can't boil down the sequence to a long ASCII string without a lot more work. The current next-gen sequencing technologies have a high error rate, so you have to sequence the genome many times over to get confidence in any one base call. If you store the raw image/chromatogram/electrical signals from the sequencing, the amount of data will be much higher.

Well, I'm assuming a reference build here, which I would expect is the colloquial meaning of this usage. But, in any case, the phrase is poorly worded and can be quite wrong, depending on what "genome" is defined to mean.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:29 PM on November 12, 2010


Excuse a pedantic derail regarding Regardless, the word virus in the modern sense is a purely English word and thus follows English pluralization rules...

Mmm, you're right but only in regard to American English pluralization. English English doesn't have firm rules about this, so you will still hear words like rhonoceri and octopi used frequently over there. These are linguistically incorrect for similar reasons - inaccurately using a Latin to modify a Greek root to make one's English seem more sophisticated - but arguably much of the English language's charm and versatility stems from this sort of euphonious bricolage ('tinkering' doesn't imply a functional end result to me...). As you are doubtless aware, medieval and ancient scribes had experimental streaks of their own, while the Emperor Claudius bemoaned the popular ignorance of Etruscan. I have to admit to liking viri; though I don't make a habit of forcing this preference on others, I think it's defensible as exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis, especially given that those who study such miscroscopica are dubbed virologists rather than virulogists.

I do empathise however, or 'feel your pain,' as you Americans say. Every so often my sense of humour deserts me, the centre fails to hold, and I flee this linguistic theatre of the absurd to bury myself in the quiet stolidity of some literary corner that is forever England (or Ireland, or Scotland, or Wales) and forget for a while the rampant neologisms and ravaging zeds which tax my patience so.

Fans of a certain science-fiction film might find hidden herein the key to an interesting analytical perspective.

posted by anigbrowl at 1:33 PM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]


Wait a minute? They've given up on the demonic possession theory?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:35 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well that would certainly explain the links these things have to both genetics AND viral infections.

Hello, gene x environment interaction!
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:19 PM on November 12, 2010


But in theory, in some future high-tech utopia, all humans could be born with fully engineered genetics, in which every gene is carefully designed for best effect.

This statement may misinterpret the role of genetic diversity in a population. The "best effect" depends upon the present environment, and is subject to change. Rather than each individual having alternatives for each gene, which would be too costly at that level, the population represents all the viable genes so that changes in the environment lead to a difference in distribution of variants that is more suited to that environment. Of course, if there are no genotypes in the population that allow survival of the shift in the environment, well, it's curtains for that population (see dinosaurs, extinction).
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:25 PM on November 12, 2010


Can someone who knows more biology than I do explain a bit more about the potential implications of these findings?

Well, this is not about treatment of schizophrenia. This is about hunting for a cause, which sometimes suggests treatments. It's also about examining the role of junk DNA.

Ok, I am going to send this article to my sister the molecular biologist so she can make it even simpler for me to understand, because I am totally blown away by this and want to make sure I understand it all.

This article actually talks about two different infections coming together to create a high risk of schizophrenia. The first infection is that of a retrovirus, and that infection happened a really long time ago. Like hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. But that infection was of our DNA, and so it persists in us, all of us, although possibly in mutated forms. Really, that virus has become part of us, and it probably makes more sense to think of this component as genetic rather than infectious.

The second infection is an infection that wakes up that old retrovirus, that somehow activates the genes, and so starts an immune response that seriously screws people up.

Even if this hypothesis is true, it doesn't completely explain the etiology of schizophrenia. The antibodies to the activating infections mentioned are not present in all schizophrenics. There's a suggestion that the same factors sometimes get expressed as schizophrenia, sometimes as a different disease, and maybe sometimes not at all. The article mentions genetic factors, outside of the embedded retroviral DNA, that are risk factors for schizophrenia.

The activating infections are ones we'd already love to be able to vaccinate against, but so far, we've been unable to do so. These are illnesses that pregnant mothers (in the US) are already screened for and warned about (which suggests a counter-argument to this article: why hasn't schizophrenia become less common with falling toxoplasmosis rates, for example?) There is the potential for the retrovirus being activated by other viruses, viruses we aren't yet aware of, because they're not (very?) pathogenic. This hypothesis doesn't rule out psychosocial causes-- it would take a lot of convoluted thinking to explain all psychosocial risk factors for schizophrenia in terms of genetics and infection.

If Dickerson's trial of an anti-malarial for schizophrenics, presumably inspired by some of this research, shows any benefit, then it would be pretty exciting for a lot of people.

If this is true, I wonder why it tends to so much more frequently manifest in twenty-something men than in other groups.

Schizophrenia is equally common in men and women. It tends to appear later in women.
posted by nathan v at 3:07 PM on November 12, 2010 [6 favorites]


So... does this mean weed is off the hook?
posted by moorooka at 3:27 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


A less dramatic possibility than fully engineered genetics, would be genetic editing, where people with unabashedly harmful DNA transcription errors could have them corrected (at least in their offspring). In the case at hand, maybe the endogenous retroviruses could simply be removed.

Since there is some genetic linkage with schizophrenia, there is presumably some variant that makes HERV-W more dangerous for some people, if they get the triggering infections. At least for them, anyway.
posted by msalt at 3:32 PM on November 12, 2010


Could it also be that schizophrenia is not a disease at all, but is a symptom, like, say a cough, which might be caused by any number of underlying infections or auto-immune disorders? So maybe 5% or 40% or 90% of Schizophrenia cases are caused by this retrovirus and the rest of the cases have completely unrelated causes?
posted by empath at 3:38 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


E. Fuller Torrey, the psychiatrist quoted throughout the Discover magazine article, co-authored a thought-provoking study on how American mental health law from the late 1960s onwards was strongly influenced by assumptions about severe mental illness which have since been discredited. It's well worth the read.
posted by New Frontier at 4:03 PM on November 12, 2010 [4 favorites]



Wait a minute? They've given up on the demonic possession theory?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:35 PM on November 12 [+] [!]


No, no, we are just now naming the demon before we cast it out.
posted by aetg at 4:11 PM on November 12, 2010


maybe the endogenous retroviruses could simply be removed

Another possibility is that the body has hijacked some of proteins these viruses produce for other purposes. Particularly something that's been around as long as this one. Removing it from the genome may have some unforeseen negative consequences for cognition or for normally functioning people.
posted by dibblda at 5:52 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, fascinating.
posted by ob at 6:21 PM on November 12, 2010


So Burroughs might've been literally correct about the origins of language? Fun!
posted by contraption at 7:15 PM on November 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU: "“The psychiatrists thought I was psychotic myself,” Torrey says. “Some of them still do.”

The sooner we realize that the brain is a biological organ, subject to disease, malfunction and evolution just like all the other ones, the better off we'll all be
"

I can't speak for the 1970s, but I've yet to meet a living Psychiatrist that does not believe that Schizophrenia is not a progressive, organic brain disease (which but for an accident of history would be part of Neurology's remit today). The inflammation/infection hypotheses are well established (amongst others), with some good lines of evidence and much known about the epidemiology, the differential distribution, and the socioeconomic factors influencing development of the phenotype, and much is known about the typical changes seen in the frontal and prefrontal cortex of schizophrenics. We know which neurone phenotypes are downregulated by inflammatory cascades, and we know a lot about which circuits are disinhibited as a result - how else could new antipsychotics be designed? We also know a lot about prodromal and proband schizophrenia brains: how they are similar, how they differ, the preclinical signs that can be detected.

Articles like this, that represent a tiny slice of what is known in the field about a continuum disease, necessarily oversimplifying it, are beneficial in one way because they get more knowledge Out There But they are also dangerous because they present a totalising perspective. There's no column inches in presenting the latest "Further research is indicated" of most journal findings... but there are in saying "INSANITY VIRUS FOUND".
posted by meehawl at 9:35 PM on November 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


Great post, fantastic article. Really amazing to find out the little bastards have hitchhiked our DNA like that.

Maybe there's no such thing as "junk" DNA, hmm? Very interesting.
posted by zoogleplex at 11:07 PM on November 12, 2010


Am I the only one who was creepily reminded of The Giving Plague while reading this?
posted by NoraReed at 10:22 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


NoraReed, I'd never heard of it but that's a fun little story and I can see why you'd think of it. Thanks!
posted by dubitable at 1:10 PM on November 13, 2010


Wait a minute? They've given up on the demonic possession theory?

Well, not everyone has.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:42 PM on November 13, 2010


The really weird thing about these endogenous retroviruses to me is that, as long as they don't produce complete virus particles capable of infecting other cells, when activated they would function essentially as extremely powerful endogenous *vaccines* against the retrovirus which gave rise to them in the first place as well as closely related members of the same virus family.

I would be surprised if viruses, at least, which are capable of activating the endogenous retroviral genes wouldn't produce a much worse infection if you succeeded in silencing the endogenous retrovirus altogether.

I'd also be surprised if some exogenous vaccines aren't activating endogenous retroviral genes.
posted by jamjam at 1:51 PM on November 13, 2010


I really loved this article. Information like this, which makes me contemplate the chaotic complexity of what I am, gives me a feeling something like vertigo. The system that biology reveals seems too precarious to be stable, even though my person experience shows otherwise. Reading about mitochondria and their probable evolutionary history gives me the same feeling, or thinking about the fact I need to breathe several times a minute or the whole thing falls over
posted by compound eye at 6:07 PM on November 13, 2010


Wait a minute? They've given up on the demonic possession theory?

Well, not everyone has.


To be fair, I think you have to have something much more extreme than "garden variety" schizophrenia to get the attention of these guys.
posted by ymgve at 8:25 PM on November 13, 2010


To be fair,

LOL
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:43 AM on November 14, 2010


Wait a minute? They've given up on the demonic possession theory?

The funny thing is, this is sort of a return to that idea; they've just replaced the demons with Folger's Crystals endogenous retroviruses.

I'd be curious, come to think of it, to see a nice infographical comparison between caused by Satan and caused by a virus. I have a feeling the two columns would be eerily similar.


Huh. I get the feeling I may be coming down with something. (Is there a vaccine against religion?)
posted by Sys Rq at 9:16 AM on November 14, 2010


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