Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

Enemies within?

How perinatal infections may make us crazy

In the chat channels of the Free Internet Chess Server there once did lurk a player who called himself Sqreater — short for “square eater.” This devourer of tetragons was filled with absurd prejudices, deeply riven by logical and moral inconsistencies, and a sometimes insufferable polemicist. Paradoxically, he was also among the most erudite individuals I have ever encountered; I learned much from him.

Adolf Hitler: Did prenatal flu account for his psychopathy?

Adolf Hitler: Did prenatal flu account for his mental pathology?
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Several years ago, Sqreater announced a new hypothesis: Adolf Hitler, he said, may have developed the mental pathology that was to yield a world war and a Holocaust because, during her pregnancy with him, his mother had suffered a bout of dangerous influenza. To damage caused by this infection, Sqreater attributed the origin of Hitler’s psychopathy. At the time, this seemed rather far-fetched, and Sqreater soon abandoned the defense of his idea.

Now, however, it appears that Sqreater may have been on to something.

Each of us is the product of all history: our own, our progenitors’ and that of species from which we evolved millions and even billions of years ago. Roughly forty percent of all our DNA, in our brains as elsewhere in our bodies, appears to be composed of ERVs (endogenous retroviruses) that invaded but did not kill the cells of our distant prehominid progenitors, and were instead incorporated into DNA and passed from generation to generation, more different forms of them being added over the course of evolutionary history. This is part of what is sometimes rather flippantly referred to as “junk DNA.”

These ERVs remain dormant throughout most people’s lives. Sometimes, however, when people are exposed to perinatal (before birth or in early infancy) viral infections, a crucial balance is disrupted and the sleeping retrovirus awakes. This article refers to some of the consequences of this phenomenon.

In both schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis, ERVs activated by infections appear to trigger immune responses that progressively degrade tissue, impairing brain functions in different ways that lead, respectively, to hallucinations and delusions on the one hand, and, on the other, declining motor skills and memory. There are also hints that a similar mechanism may account for other brain pathologies.

Was Adolf Hitler’s madness really the result of influenza exposure in utero? So long after the fact, we will very probably never really know. But once we understand the mechanism, perhaps we can anticipate and treat prospective psychopaths. And since there is no cure for the condition, this may deliver millions of future children from a lifetime spent in prisons and mental institutions.

Originally published as a review of a Discover article on perinatal infections and brain pathology.

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