In Search of the Insanity Virus
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Separately, another researcher, Hervé Perron, made a breakthrough discovery, learning that everyone carries the virus that causes multiple sclerosis. It’s embedded in our DNA, the legacy of a rare retrovirus inherent in the human genome. And in people with MS, this “viral stowaway” has been switched on to cause MS symptoms. Torrey, Yolken, and others now think schizophrenia works in much the same way, caused by a retrovirus called HERV-W.
“The first, pivotal infection by toxoplasmosis or influenza might happen shortly before or after birth,” writes Fox in Discover. “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.”
It’s a bold theory that upends much previous scientific research into schizophrenia, but Perron has started a Swiss biotech company, GeNeuro, to develop treatments that target HERV-W, and he hopes to begin clinical trials this year.
Some skepticism remains, Discover reports, but if the trials work, “the questions may be silenced—and so may the voices of schizophrenia.”
This article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.
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