Can viruses control our behavior? It may not be a question you yourself have considered asking, but someone has done. The question seems completely science fiction-like, but science has proven it: Viruses can change our behavior.
Of course, this is not something that takes place in a direct way. They do not hijack our will or make decisions for us. In fact, they do it in a quieter and more cunning way, because if there is one thing that these infectious, microscopic beings want more than anything else, it is to survive, reproduce, and be a part of complex ecosystems.
One way to achieve their goals is by changing the host’s behavior so that they can spread more viral particles. Thus, many of the symptoms we experience when we have the flu, diarrhea, or a fairly common cold are intended to be transmitted to other healthy individuals so that the infection can spread.
Sneezing, for example, is more than just a natural mechanism for excreting these urgently from our body. It is also an effective way for viruses to “jump” from one organism to another. And as we know, it’s something that works. However, there are many more fascinating (and disturbing) facts on this subject.
How can viruses control our behavior?
The word “virus” alone scares us already, and this is especially the case right now, when the world is suffering from COVID-19. As is often said, our worst enemies are those we cannot see. They are the ones that are only visible under a microscope and that have the power to weaken our health.
But how are these living beings really? In fact, they are nothing more than packages of genetic information. They are containers surrounded by an eye-catching protein capsule.
Their sole purpose is to penetrate the cells of other organisms in order to survive and multiply. Not only do they infect humans, but they also invade animal organisms, plants, fungi and even bacteria.
So when asked how viruses can control our behavior, we must first understand that they are smarter than we think.
They lack brains, of course, but it is common for virologists to define them as highly intelligent beings. They know how to penetrate a cell, how to disconnect it and transform it so that it reproduces viral particles. And as we mentioned above, they also change the behavior of the host.
The symptoms of disease: The ways in which viruses spread
We need to refer to a recent study to find out if viruses can control our behavior. It was published in the journal, PLOS Pathogens , and it was published by Dr. Claudia Hagbon and Dr. Maria Istrate from Linköping University in Sweden.
In this study, they tried to dive deeper into a type of infectious disease that costs 600,000 children their lives every year. It is a very high number and its cause is a rotavirus.
The most obvious symptoms are always vomiting and diarrhea. Vomiting was thought to be the body’s defense mechanism against the disease.
Vomiting was thought to follow this connection between the brain and the gut in order to release a dangerous element, bad food or other toxic substances from the body.
In this case, it was the serotonin that activated the nervous system so that the brain generated this behavior and thus could release these harmful elements from the body.
What the Swedish researchers discovered was the following: The rotavirus controls the mechanisms of vomiting and diarrhea, and it does so with a very specific purpose: to spread viral particles and infect other people.
The science of behavioral virology
Can viruses control our behavior? As we can see, the answer is yes. They can, and their strategy is to turn our symptoms into their mechanism of infection against other people – even other hosts. In their desire to survive and multiply, they take control of behavioral patterns such as sneezing, vomiting, and diarrhea.
But the science of behavioral virology has gone even further, as research from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm has revealed more.
Certain viruses can change our behavior completely. They can cause irritability, insomnia, hyperactivity and can even drastically change a person’s behavior.
An example of this is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (mad cow disease), in which animals suffer from progressive dementia, difficulty walking, upsetness and mood swings. Another example is Bornavirus, which was first mentioned in horses in 1766.
However, it has also affected some people and produced clinical symptoms very similar to schizophrenia. Rabies (dog madness) is another example of how a virus can change an animal’s behavior.
Fortunately, science protects us from the effects of many of these viruses. For those viruses where there is no vaccination yet, or where we have not yet built a defense against them, there is an extremely effective strategy: frequent hand washing and the use of rubbing alcohol.