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Science

Ancient Viruses Altered Human Brains 110

giulioprisco writes: A new study from Lund University in Sweden (abstract) indicates inherited viruses that are millions of years old play an important role in building up the complex networks that characterize the human brain. The Lund study shows that retroviruses seem to play a central role in the basic functions of the brain — over the course of evolution, the viruses took an increasingly firm hold on the steering wheel in our cellular machinery. In particular, the retroviruses seem to play an important role in the regulation of which genes are to be expressed, and when."
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Ancient Viruses Altered Human Brains

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  • WSB (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 12, 2015 @08:28PM (#48799041)

    William Burroughs figured this out decades ago.

    • ... its not too surprising. If something works evolution will generally use it no matter how convoluted it is. Its also highly unlikely that junk DNA would have remained in the genome if it had no purpose since a cell that dumped non working DNA would require less energy to reproduce.

      Once thing the article isn't clear about when it talks about viruses - do they mean actual viruses are loose in the brain or are they simply refering to the viral DNA?

      • by pcb ( 125862 )

        Its also highly unlikely that junk DNA would have remained in the genome if it had no purpose

        This is a common error; the reverse is actually true. Cells (and by extension, us) serve DNA. Cells (again, by extension, us) are merely vehicles for DNA to replicate - they're the unit of evolution. As a consequence, the DNA does not care whether it contains 'junk' bits. It only cares if it's faithfully copied. Btw, this is an astonishing consequence of evolution that personally blows my mind. If anybody's interested, read The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.

        Note: I'm aware that DNA is a mindless macro-mo

        • by Viol8 ( 599362 )

          Umm, no. If 1 cell takes more energy to replicate than another due to excess DNA that add nothing to its fitness in a survival situation then guess which genes will eventually win. DNA doesn't "care" at all, its simply a biological instruction list, nothing more. If its fit it'll survive, if it isn't it won't.

  • Something new to blame my lack of endowment on! Thank you!
  • by Fire_Wraith ( 1460385 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @08:44PM (#48799163)
    Agent Smith: "I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet; you are a plague and we are the cure."
    • by plover ( 150551 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @08:59PM (#48799251) Homepage Journal

      Put on your best Hugo Weaving voice and imagine Elrond saying "Hobbits ... are a disease; and we are the cure."

    • I for one welcome Hugo Weaving as our new Agent Overlord!
    • by dasunt ( 249686 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @10:39PM (#48799723)

      Agent Smith: "I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops an equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not.

      Cute sentimentality, but considering how obviously untrue it is, that monologue always bugged me.

      First off, what areas have humans consumed so many natural resources that they can no longer survive there? About the only arguable cases I can think of is areas of desertification - and even then, humans do manage to live there.

      Second, mammals have no instinct to come to an equilibrium with their environment. E.g. rabbits in Australia - introduced a century ago, and definitely did not come to an homeostasis with the environment they found - instead, growing so numerous that they are a serious ecological problem.

      • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @11:43PM (#48799945)

        Pfft, never let facts get in the way of a good monologue.

        • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday January 13, 2015 @12:06AM (#48800037)

          Better read Collapse by Jared Diamond before you get all cuddly with yourself. If that doesn't work for you, pick up a copy of The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update.

          If you don't like either of those, then look at the projections from the National Security Council regarding the future of global geopolitical stability once climate change has really kicked in. Why do you think humans are considered (by ourselves) to be the world's most 'successful' species, anyway? Ya think it has anything to do with the upcoming 6th major extinction event?

          Cultivate some more viri, will ya.

          • by dasunt ( 249686 )

            I'm not saying humans are awesome, and I'm not dismissing our environmental impacts. I'm just pointing out the flaws in that speech.

            Take "Collapse" by Jared Diamond, since you mentioned it. The regions he talked about still have a human population. It's not similar to a virus, but instead a boom/bust population cycle common to some mammals (e.g. the infamous snowshoe hare)

            We may cause the end of our civilization in many ways. But humanity is likely to still be around even after the end.

      • Easter island (Score:5, Insightful)

        by aepervius ( 535155 ) on Tuesday January 13, 2015 @12:16AM (#48800079)

        what areas have humans consumed so many natural resources that they can no longer survive there

        There isn't that many, but i think easter island would qualify.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          There are a number of similar theories about ancient cities that were abandoned, especially in the deserts of North America. The land stops supporting the population at a certain point, and the city disbands. The Anasazi are usually held to be an example of this, but there are still questions about that, and there are other examples in the New World that might prove more reliable. In the Old World, one should remember that Babylonia was once a verdant place.

      • People actually believe this crap though, and it's pretty frightening. Not saying humans don't have sociopaths and psychopaths, but if we could rid ourselves somehow of our current political classes of people the problems would not be bad.

        For example, people in Africa that have lived for countless generations on the same land are having it stolen by "tycoons" and politicians. They have to move now because they can't survive without any land to live on, and their land is converted to exploit it's resources

        • Re:Thank you (Score:5, Interesting)

          by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Tuesday January 13, 2015 @08:14AM (#48801683) Homepage Journal

          I think we should convert to a very successful time in Athens, where politicians were selected by lottery... Out with the political class and the people that can buy them.

          Only a portion of the politicians were selected by lottery, and only racially privileged male landowners were eligible to serve or had a vote. Once elected, they could still be bought. Their society was based on slavery. Still want to convert back to Athenian government? Guess what? It was an oligarchic republic just like what we have now.

        • Obligatory HHGTTG:

          "The major problem &mdash; one of the major problems, for there are several &mdash; one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
          To summarize: it is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to
      • First off, what areas have humans consumed so many natural resources that they can no longer survive there? About the only arguable cases I can think of is areas of desertification - and even then, humans do manage to live there.

        We've succeeded in turning most of the places that humans can survive without clothing into places that no longer fit that description, and we're working on the rest.

        Second, mammals have no instinct to come to an equilibrium with their environment. E.g. rabbits in Australia - introduced a century ago, and definitely did not come to an homeostasis with the environment they found - instead, growing so numerous that they are a serious ecological problem.

        Yes, the difference is that we don't have any meaningful predators. The top predator isn't kept in check by anything other than lack of food. However, our means of food production is in decline. We can survive by going hydroponic, but we're destroying the last good topsoil on the planet. Interestingly, Ukraine is the home of some of the world's

      • You do know that The Matrix isn't a documentary or scientific paper, right?
      • by Reziac ( 43301 ) *

        Deer will also eat themselves out of house and home, even in areas where they are native.

        And looking at the history of the Sahara (which during major warm periods has not been a desert), and the difference between grazed (vibrant) and not-grazed (desertified) -- it appears that climate changes and disuse are the culprits, far more than anything humans do.

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]

    • by gnupun ( 752725 )

      Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet; you are a plague and we are the cure."

      That may be true of modern, technologically advanced humans. Those humans that have lived in primitive tribes for hundreds/thousands of years haven't harmed the environment much.

      • Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet; you are a plague and we are the cure."

        That may be true of modern, technologically advanced humans. Those humans that have lived in primitive tribes for hundreds/thousands of years haven't harmed the environment much.

        Which is why there are still ancient megaherbivores on aboriginal lands in Australia, right? Or by "modern, technologically advanced humans" do you mean any people who can built boats?

    • "The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone, and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself, ’cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed. And if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: the earth plus plastic. The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The ea

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 12, 2015 @09:26PM (#48799411)

    A few years ago New Scientist had an interesting article that made me look at viruses in a different light.
    It basically said that viruses allow different species to exchange genetic material beyond what would be possible with
    sex alone. They had some example like the development of the placenta :
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2012/02/14/mammals-made-by-viruses/

  • will latch onto the "your kid will never be anything more than a mere monkey" argument.

    • by hel1xx ( 2468044 )
      ______ gives you autism.

      vaccines give you autism. researching the brain will give you autism (damn fancy brain scanning equipment altering kids brains!)

      These people need to be shot.
      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        These people need to be shot.

        That's not exactly a ringing endorsement for why the pro-vax side should be respected.

        "Believe what I believe or I'll kill you."

        Yeah. People who think that way are exactly the sort who should not be listened to, and for directly related reasons cannot seem to understand why anybody would question their values and assurances.

        Authoritarian followers believe what they are told, and the authorities of this world are either psychopaths or more authoritarian followers conned b

      • by Ukab the Great ( 87152 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @09:53PM (#48799531)

        Good luck with that. The raw milk they drink gives them super strength and their excellent homepathy will repair any damage.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The article lies. It says, "[t]he reason the viruses are activated specifically in the brain is probably due to the fact that tumours cannot form in nerve cells, unlike in other tissues."

    Leaving aside the awkward phrasing ("form _in_ nerve cells" [emphasis added]), it turns out that 1% of brain tumors are neuronal tumors. "Tumors of the central nervous system that contain abnormal neuronal elements, termed neuronal tumors, make up approximately 1% of all brain tumors." (http://pubs.rsna.org/doi/pdf/10.1148/

    • Re:Neuronal Tumors (Score:5, Informative)

      by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @09:51PM (#48799525) Homepage

      The article lies. It says, "[t]he reason the viruses are activated specifically in the brain is probably due to the fact that tumours cannot form in nerve cells, unlike in other tissues."

      Leaving aside the awkward phrasing ("form _in_ nerve cells" [emphasis added]), it turns out that 1% of brain tumors are neuronal tumors. "Tumors of the central nervous system that contain abnormal neuronal elements, termed neuronal tumors, make up approximately 1% of all brain tumors." (http://pubs.rsna.org/doi/pdf/10.1148/radiographics.22.5.g02se051177)

      That said, I think I understand the gist of the argument. But I didn't know that neuronal tumors were so rare (or supposedly impossible, according to TFA) and felt compelled to fact check that assertion.

      I think it may refer to the fact that neural derived tumors typically form from the neural support cells (glial cells, astrocytes) rather than the axons and dentrite of a 'nerve cell'. Lousy phrasing and really a stretch as far as significance.

      Which segues into nicely hyperbolic title in TFA. What the research shows is that retroviral-derived sequences have some interesting control factors that are different from other cells. To intimate that this has anything to do with intelligence or even brain function is rather a stretch. It's a shame because the findings (a novel control pathway in the brain) is interesting all by itself.

      Sigh.

  • Error in TFA (Score:5, Informative)

    by Prune ( 557140 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @10:20PM (#48799647)
    From the article: "tumours cannot form in nerve cells". This, of course, is BS that was discredited a couple of years ago: http://m.medicalxpress.com/new... [medicalxpress.com] Perhaps we should have a Slashdot discussion on lazy scientists failing to keep up with developments in their own field. If you write without bothering to read, you end up with... well, something like Slashdot...
  • lost hair (Score:2, Troll)

    by kcelery ( 410487 )

    I would consider human brain development is due to some odd genetic mutation when
    human had lost their hair. When climate changed, those who could figure out how to
    survive the cold winter lives on.

    For the hairless homo sapien to keep warm in cold climate is quite complicated as the
    fur from other animal is not quite ready to cover the body part. The cold weather forms
    some kind of selective breeding. To survive hairless, human were forced to use the brain.

    • Re:lost hair (Score:4, Informative)

      by Gavagai80 ( 1275204 ) on Monday January 12, 2015 @11:42PM (#48799941) Homepage

      Unfortunately for your randomly invented theory, homo sapiens developed their brains in warm parts of Africa.

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      Chances are, the hairless homo sapien came about BECAUSE it could be hairless. Not the other way around (becoming hairless and then finding a way to cope with that).

      That means either warm climates where they mainly were, or already having the knowledge on how to keep warm, or both.

      And, to be honest, plenty of hairless animals survive without having to wrap themselves in lion-skins. And if you do wrap yourself in lion skin, the shape barely matters as you can always do enough to cope with very mild climate

  • Reminds me of the virus that was found in the sequels to Ender's Game - there was an alien species that was completely dependent on the virus for survival, to the point that they believed it might have been directly responsible for their intelligence. Also, it brings to mind something like a biological version of the virus in Snow Crash, the concept that you could upload information to human minds that would instantly change the social structure as a whole.

    Once again, life imitates art.

    • How do we know it's not actually art imitating life? Maybe Orson Scott Card already had a theory of viruses being responsible for human intelligence, or he heard it from someone else. But OSC or his scientist friend didn't want to publicise the theory for fear of being called a quack, so OSC decided to put the theory in a book?
    • Another one, the religion virus in Snow Crash?

  • That's a flu I can use!
  • Until or unless the earth is hit by a meteorite or volcanic action causes an ice age - The future of life on planet earth will consist of humans and ponds (lakes) of green slime used as a food source. That's it. We will grow our population to the point where all "biologically-available" carbon atoms will reside in two species of life: Humans, and our food source. All other life, and the land and energy and ecosystems that they require, will be eliminated to support the expansion of the human population
  • By Greg Bear, explored this idea of retrovirus's controlling evolution about 15 years ago. It was a very good read.

  • I am generally fascinated though also terrified by this sort of thing based on the following thought pattern: https://xkcd.com/1163/ [xkcd.com]

"Dump the condiments. If we are to be eaten, we don't need to taste good." -- "Visionaries" cartoon

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