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If our DNA were an airplane carry-on bag (and essentially it is), it would be bursting at the seams. We lug around 100,000 retrovirus sequences inside us; all told, genetic parasites related to viruses account for more than 40 percent of all human DNA.
Through this research, a rough account is emerging of how HERV-W could trigger diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and MS. Although the body works hard to keep its ERVs under tight control, infections around the time of birth destabilize this tense standoff. Scribbled onto the marker board in Yolken’s office is a list of infections that are now known to awaken HERV-W—including herpes, toxoplasma, cytomegalovirus, and a dozen others. The HERV-W viruses that pour into the newborn’s blood and brain fluid during these infections contain proteins that may enrage the infant immune system. White blood cells vomit forth inflammatory molecules called cytokines, attracting more immune cells like riot police to a prison break. The scene turns toxic.
"If our data are true then about a million people a year die just because they are infected with Toxoplasma," the researcher Jaroslav Flegr told The Guardian. The data shows that the risk decreases with time after infection, but is not due to age. Ruth Gilbert, medical coordinator of the European Multicentre Study on Congenital Toxoplasmosis, told BBC News Online these findings could be due to chance, or due to social and cultural factors associated with Toxoplasma infection. However there is also evidence of a delayed effect which increases reaction times.
Other studies suggest that the parasite may influence personality. There are claims of Toxoplasma causing antisocial attitudes in men and promiscuity (or even "signs of higher intelligence" ) in women, and greater susceptibility to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in all infected persons. A 2004 study found that Toxoplasma "probably induce[s] a decrease of novelty seeking."