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Do Viruses Make Us Smarter?

Jan 12, 2015 06:13 PM EST

A new study indicated that inherited viruses that are millions of years old may make us smarter, playing an important part in building the complex networks that characterize the human brain.

It is well known among the scientific community that endogenous retroviruses comprise about five percent of our DNA. But for decades scientists didn't believe that they held any real value. However, lead study author Johan Jakobsson and his colleagues at Lund University suggest otherwise.

"We have been able to observe that these viruses are activated specifically in the brain cells and have an important regulatory role. We believe that the role of retroviruses can contribute to explaining why brain cells in particular are so dynamic and multifaceted in their function. It may also be the case that the viruses' more or less complex functions in various species can help us to understand why we are so different," Jakobsson explained in a news release.

According to their research, over the course of human evolution these kinds of viruses became more and more important in our cellular machinery. In particular, they are involved in a molecular mechanism that controls the activation processes of retroviruses. This discovery can help scientists gain insight into the innermost workings of nerve cells' most basic functions, as well as create opportunities for better understanding brain diseases linked to genetic factors.

"I believe that this can lead to new, exciting studies on the diseases of the brain. Currently, when we look for genetic factors linked to various diseases, we usually look for the genes we are familiar with, which make up a mere two percent of the genome, Jakobsson said.

"Now we are opening up the possibility of looking at a much larger part of the genetic material which was previously considered unimportant. The image of the brain becomes more complex, but the area in which to search for errors linked to diseases with a genetic component, such as neurodegenerative diseases, psychiatric illness and brain tumors, also increases."

The findings were published in the journal Cell Reports.

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