Algae in Your Throat Might Be Hurting Your Brain, Hopkins Scientists Say

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Seeing the world differently these days? It might be because there is algae living in your throat, subtly altering your cognitive function, according to recent research out of Johns Hopkins.

The study looked at a non-harmful algae virus that lives in the throats of healthy people. Lead investigator Robert Yolken and his fellow researchers stumbled on the virus in question by accident, while looking into the throats of healthy adults for an entirely different research project. They were surprised to find DNA matching a virus known to infect a particular kind of green algae on 40 of the 92 throat swabs.

Even more strikingly, the study subjects who tested positive for the virus–who, remember, were perfectly healthy otherwise–did measurably worse on tests of visual processing. The researchers then gave the virus to a group of mice–which also underperformed their uninfected counterparts on tests of recognition memory and spatial orientation.

“This is a striking example showing that the ‘innocuous’ microorganisms we carry can affect behavior and cognition,” Yolken says. “Many physiological differences between person A and person B are encoded in the set of genes each inherits from parents, yet some of these differences are fueled by the various microorganisms we harbor and the way they interact with our genes.”

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