Ancient viruses in human genome linked to mental health conditions

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  • a month ago

A recent study published in New Scientist has found a potential link between ancient viruses embedded in human DNA and an increased risk of mental health conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. The study, conducted by researchers at King's College London, analyzed the activity levels of viral genes in the genomes of individuals with a higher genetic risk for these conditions.

The viral genes in question are remnants of retroviruses that inserted their genetic information into the DNA of their hosts millions of years ago. These sequences, known as human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs), were previously thought to be dormant "fossil viruses." However, recent research has suggested that some HERVs may be active and could play a role in neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis.

The study by Powell and colleagues found that certain genetic variants associated with an elevated risk of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder were linked to altered activity of genes from five different HERVs. While the exact magnitude of this increased risk is unclear, the researchers estimate it to be relatively small, as is the case with most genetic variants influencing psychiatric conditions.

It is important to note that these findings do not definitively prove that altered HERV activity causes mental health conditions. It is possible that the viral gene activity is a consequence rather than a cause of these disorders. Researchers like Rachael Tarlinton from the University of Nottingham have commended the study's robust methodology while also emphasizing the need for caution in interpreting the results.

Overall, this study adds to the growing body of research exploring the potential role of ancient viruses in human health and highlights the complexity of genetic factors influencing mental health conditions. Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms underlying these associations and their implications for treatment and prevention strategies.


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