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Will a dip in Green Lake make you more stupid?

Will going for a swim in Green Lake make you dumber? Researchers say a virus they've found in lakes and inland waters may impact your smarts. (Seattle Parks Department)

The headline says that scientists have discovered a virus that makes humans more stupid and it’s been found in water.

“These viruses are found pretty much around the world in most any inland water source, so lakes, ponds, streams,” says Dr. David Dunigan, one of the researchers who worked on the study at the University of Nebraska.

But before we start worrying about this, let’s start really listening to what Dr. Dunigan has to say.

The first thing to remember is this is not that cat parasite which has been associated with Schizophrenia, that’s the one which generated the headline, “Cats can make you crazy.” This is not a parasite. This is a virus which has been around for 35 years. But there is indirect evidence that these viruses can affect humans.

“We found DNA sequences in the throats of human beings that match to these viruses,” says Dunigan.

In those humans that have the virus, scientists found some brain impairment even though these people were otherwise healthy.

“In the individuals that were evaluated, they did have some visual motor speed problems, visual processing problems.”

They also seemed to have slightly shorter attention spans. When mice were infected with this virus, they also showed significant effects.

“They have some difficulties recognizing novel objects and novel spaces,” says Dunigan.

The next step will be to see just how infectious this virus is. But in the meantime, does this mean you have to worry about swimming in algae infected ponds, or places say like Seattle’s Green Lake?

“These viruses are so common. It’s actually very rare when we get a water sample where we do not find the viruses,” says Dunigan. “So people are undoubtedly being exposed to them all the time, anytime you go down to your local swimming hole, pond, lake, any kind of water activity, you’re getting exposed. We don’t know what level of exposure would be required to have some sort of effect.”

So the bottom line according to the university is that of the 90 participants in Dr. Dunigan’s study, 40 tested positive for the algae virus, and those who tested positive performed worse on tests designed to measure the speed and accuracy of visual processing. They also had lower scores on tests designed to measure attention span.

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