Historical finding: Disease that once mutated in animal species jumps into humans

A disease that previously became known as a disease that jumped from animals to humans has been found in a Neanderthal man and is the first time it’s been identified in a human, scientists say.

The disease known as “linguistic encephalitis” was found in 350 years ago during a dig of a Neanderthal’s carcass in present-day Austria, according to the findings, published Thursday in the journal Science.

“Though the disease goes by many names, these are the same symptoms and signs you might see of schizophrenia,” Robert Wexler, lead author of the study, told The Associated Press. “We can say that this is the first clinical evidence of infectious disease in Neanderthals.”

Language encephalitis can cause delusions, hallucinations, depression, suicidal behavior and sexual behaviors among patients.

The disease is thought to have been a great burden for modern humans, since they could have spread it to other people and animals, but it is not clear why their synapses worked differently than Neanderthals’.

Modern humans, who have a full complement of brain cells, have had their synapses worked by the third brain cell called the astrocyte. But, Neanderthals lost that last synapse during the last common ancestor of humanity and Neanderthals about 350,000 years ago. By about that same time the early modern humans encountered Neanderthals.

Scientists dug for fossilized remains on the slopes of a steep gorge in 2001 where the remains of two Neanderthals were found, in three different rooms. To date, the skeletons of those two men do not appear to have anything in common with the disease, but those of five other Neanderthals found on the site have signs of language encephalitis.

The scientists hope the disease can help future research into human disease.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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