Japanese researchers have found that a single virus causes behavioral changes in mice that are similar to those of people with mental illness. Viruses have long been suspected of playing a role in psychiatric disorders, but until now, there’s been no proof. A protein produced by the common human virus called the Borna disease virus (BDV) is one suspect. Keizo Tomonaga inserted the gene for the virus into mouse embryos, and these mice developed cognitive disorders, and grew up to be more aggressive and hyperactive.

The cells that are affected by BDV are the ones that are involved in forming and maintaining nerve connections in the brain. Major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia are also characterized by dysfunction in these cells.

Almost 100% of people with severe mood disorders are infected with BDV. However, one in three healthy people are also have it, meaning it doesn’t cause mental illness in everyone who’s infected with it. Most human studies linking viruses with mental illness have found that the infection must occur at a specific point in a person’s development in order to have behavioral consequences.

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