Did you ever consider that viruses could be controlling your thoughts or movements? It may sound outlandish, but researchers in the Laboratory of Molecular Virology and Neuroscience (LMVN) at the Northeast Ohio Medical University are pursuing such a notion. It is an underappreciated fact that a substantial portion of the human genome is viral in origin. It is hypothesized that those viruses are in the genome as a result of the infection of germline cells throughout human evolution. These viral elements are referred to as human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs). What they are doing in the genome, and whether they cause benefit or harm remains controversial. By comparison, there are also exogenous retroviruses, like the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and the human T-lymphotrophic viruses (HTLVs) that can infect a variety of human cells, including cells in the brain and cause cognitive and motor system dysfunction.
Ongoing work from the LMVN has demonstrated that the expression of certain retroviral components can modify the excitability of certain populations of neurons. Depending on the specific virus, this can lead to a lethal paralytic disease in laboratory animals. This system has served as a model for understanding how viruses alter CNS function.
Interestingly, rather than acting on the neurons themselves, the viral proteins instead act within cells called glia (for nerve glue), which appear to have the capacity to selectively regulate neurons and neuronal circuits. These findings appear to explain why viruses, both in our environment and our genomes, have been implicated as causative agents in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease (AD), schizophrenia, dementia, multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS; Lou Gehrig’s disease).
The expectation is that by understanding how retroviruses alter central nervous system function, it will facilitate the development of novel therapeutics for treating a variety of devastating viral and non-viral neurodegenerative diseases.
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