There's a virus that makes you stupid, scientists say

Researchers at Johns Hopkins and the University of Nebraska say that the algae virus affects human cognitive functions.

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Could it be that there's a virus inside you that impairs your cognitive functions? Giannis681980/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Do you have days when you just can't get anything right?

Are there times when you stare at yourself in the mirror somewhere around midnight and say: "Why the hell did I do that?"

I'd like to offer you hope. It may be that you're not innately stupid, silly, dumb, brain-dead or even gormless. Indeed, it may well be that you've got an algae virus that's messing with your cognitive systems.

My own brain was moved, you see, by the Independent which muttered that scientists had discovered a virus that "makes you stupid."

I immediately inserted medical instruments inside my cranium -- without anesthetic -- to see if I could find this virus, which might be my excuse for a thousand silly actions.

Well, I wanted to.

Instead, I went to look at the study, published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. "Chlorovirus ATCV-1 is part of the human oropharyngeal virome and is associated with changes in cognitive functions in humans and mice."

A large group of scientists from both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Nebraska examined microorganisms that populate our "mucosal surfaces."

A surprise discovery was that the ATCV-1 virus -- which comes from algae -- seemed to affect human cognition. Previously, it had been thought that humans weren't prone to being infected by this virus. However, in taking throat swabs from 92 people, the researchers found 40 of them had the virus.

The research report says: "The presence of ATCV-1 DNA was not associated with demographic variables but was associated with a modest but statistically significant decrease in the performance on cognitive assessments of visual processing and visual motor speed." The decrease was around 10 percent.

The scientists tested this result by injecting mice with the same virus. They say the results were similar.

When they found the virus, the scientists weren't sure what it was. They discovered it had previously been found in green algae which inhabit rivers and lakes.

But if such a high proportion of the guinea pigs in this study had the virus, what if 40 percent of the world is also adorned by it? Might this explain some of the more macro aspects of human behavior, such as voting patterns, fast-food worship and Prius-driving?

Moreover, how easy is it to catch the virus and suddenly lose a promotion, a spouse or one's way home?

The University of Nebraska's Professor James L. Van Etten, a member of the research team, told Newsweek that currently there was no indication this virus was contagious.

He added: "My best guess is that these viruses may infect another microorganism besides the algae that we have been studying... This other microorganism may be the way that the virus gets into the throat."

A scientist armed with a best guess is like a soldier with a water pistol.

Somewhere, somehow, there might a thing living inside you that makes you do 10 percent more inadvisable things than you would normally do. And, let's face it, you do quite a few inadvisable things every day.

We don't know where the virus might have come from. But there's a chance that it might interfere with our thought-processes at vital moments.

Should we be surprised? We have to take so many cognitive decisions every day. We fancy ourselves as intelligent beings, but we're really quite primitive sorts, easily affected by all sorts of stimuli, some of which are clearly deleterious.

We make mistakes all the time. The notion that there might be a virus that hinders our cognitive processes feels both a touch frightening and quaintly reassuring.

I'm sorry about the affair, darling. It was the virus.

Please miss. The virus messed up my homework.

No, officer. I wasn't speeding, but my virus was.

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