Doctors Didn’t Know This Common Antibiotic Was Deadly

Levaquin is one of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S. Years of evidence show it’s also overprescribed and can cause serious side effects—even death.

Six plaintiffs filed an $800 million lawsuit (PDF) against former Federal Drug Administration chief Margaret Hamburg and health giant Johnson & Johnson, accusing them of hiding the dangers of the antibiotic Levaquin to increase profits.

There are many unconvincing claims in the lawsuit, but that the lethal effects of the drug were not adequately communicated to physicians is not one of them.

“The pain is almost unbearable in both legs and left shoulder,” a user named Diane wroteon Consumer Affairs in October. “I am now walking with a cane.” Ruptured tendons, which Diane was diagnosed with, are a rare but serious side effect of Levaquin, as are a host of other physical and mental issues.

 “I can barely walk,” another named Linda wrote one month ago. “Can’t sit or lay without discomfort.”

Filed as a federal racketeering lawsuit, the complaint is as salacious as it is tenuous, claiming that while heading the FDA, Hamburg conspired to “cover up” side effects to boost the profits of Johnson & Johnson (the drug’s maker) and her husband (whose firm allegedly owned stock in the company).

The man behind the conspiracy is Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls a “pathologically litigious attorney.” His argument hasn’t made it far on the Internet and likely won’t in court—because, as the attorneys for Johnson & Johnson argue: “This is a product liability suit wrapped in a conspiracy theory.”

Hamburg’s attorneys called Klayman’s lawsuit “patently false,” “defective,” and lacking in factual evidence. “We are confident the court will dismiss his claims in their entirety,” they said in a statement to The Daily Beast. “For nearly six years, Dr. Hamburg served alongside her FDA colleagues to help protect the health and safety of the American public. Mr. Klayman’s accusations concerning that work are reckless and offensive.”

The concept that the FDA chief conspired to get rich by gaming the system will be a tough one to prove and, as of now, Klayman’s complaint lacks the evidence to do so. The already weak claim is further discredited by the fact that Klayman routinely finds creative ways to attack President Obama and the Clintons, the latter of which he has sued 18 times.

But while the suit may not have merit, it revives a critical conversation about the drug in question. Hamburg’s intentions aside, the fact remains: Warnings surrounding the popular antibiotic Levaquin have been dangerously insufficient. The drug, capable of causing debilitating tendinitis, permanent nerve damage, and even psychosis, is meant to be reserved for severe life-threatening infections.

Instead, it’s a part of a family of antibiotics that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the fourth-most prescribed nationwide, given to 33 million Americans in 2013 alone (PDF). With a panel of experts urging the FDA to add further warnings, the question of how this happened seems secondary to a more urgent one: Why hasn’t it been fixed?

Levaquin (or levofloxacin) first entered the market in 1996 as the newest version of an old class of drugs known as fluoroquinolones. Synthetic broad-spectrum antibiotics, they attack bacterial DNA directly in a way that allows them to treat the severest infections, such as hospital-acquired pneumonia and anthrax inhalation. For this reason, the drug is incredibly valuable to the medical world.

But the strength with which Levaquin operates is a double-edged sword, leading to a host of side effects that patients allege have been underplayed. Most commonly, these include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, and insomnia. Less often, but well documented, are seizures, tendinitis, nerve damage, aortic aneurysms, cardiac arrhythmia, psychosis, vision loss, and renal failure.

 When used for severe infections, the life-saving benefits of the drug far outweigh the risks. When used for uncomplicated urinary tract infections, a condition for which Levaquin is often prescribed, they do not. According to the 200,000 patients who have suffered serious side effects after being prescribed it for mild infections, that message is still not clear to some doctors.

Without awareness, patients are prescribed the drug for mild infections, putting them at risk of permanent physical and psychological damage. The six plaintiffs in Klayman’s case are a small sampling of a larger problem that, according to the science world, experts have known about for decades.

Levaquin began causing problems soon after hitting the market, but reports on the negative effects were scant. Ten years after it was approved, the nonprofit consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen released data showing that between November 1997 and December 2005 there were nearly 800 cases of tendon disorders from use of fluoroquinolones—61 percent of them from Levaquin.

In 2006, Public Citizen Research Group’s director, Dr. Sidney Wolfe, petitioned the FDA to add a black box warning to the label. “The numbers are startling,” Wolfe said in 2006. “Tendon ruptures associated with these drugs continue to occur at a disturbing rate but could be prevented if doctors and patients were more aware of early warning signals.”

In July of 2008, the FDA agreed to add a black box warning about the risk of tendinitis, but did not agree to send a letter to doctors highlighting the risks. The black box did little to curb prescriptions and by 2010 Levaquin was the best-selling antibiotic in America.

Patient complaints began pouring in online as academia attempted to piece together the issues. In 2008, scientists at the National Center for Biotechnology Information studied the case of a healthy 42-year-old woman who suffered from an “acute-onset delirium” with “psychotic features.” Her symptoms dissipated when Levaquin was stopped, leading them to conclude that the drug caused the reaction.

Eventually, users suffering long-term consequences from Levaquin began taking legal action. In 2009, three separate plaintiffs from West Virginia who suffered from severe tendon injuries after taking the drug argued that the black box warning alone wasn’t enough. “Physicians will interpret the relative risk of a Levaquin-induced tendon injury inappropriately,” reads the complaint. “Defendants continue to market Levaquin as a first line therapy for the common bronchitis and sinusitis infections, and for which many other, safer antibiotics are available.”

In 2010, Johnson & Johnson settled its first major Levaquin lawsuit, shelling out $1.8 million in damages to a plaintiff who suffered a tendon rupture after taking the drug. By 2012, the company was facing upwards of 3,400 lawsuits from patients arguing that the warnings were not made clear enough to themselves or their doctors. In November of that year, the company settled 845 of them.

Those suffering from fluoroquinolones-related injuries began rallying together, nicknaming themselves “floxies,” and forming support groups across the Web. A Facebook page called Fluoroquinolone Antibiotic Toxicity boasts more than 7,300 members; another called My Quin Story (“Life After Levaquin”) has 3,179.

Their stories resemble those in the 72-page complaint that Klayman filed (PDF), in which six plaintiffs describe being injured by Levaquin. One of them, Terry Aston, told a local ABC affiliate that taking the drug to treat a non-serious infection ruined her life. “I’m tired all the time,” Aston said. “I have to really push to get anything done. I have pain every day, all day, throughout my body… I can’t lift things like I used to.”

Dozens of doctors have spoken out against misuse of fluoroquinolones over the years, most while still affirming that the drugs do have benefits. The University of South Carolina’s Dr. Charles Bennett, who runs the Southern Network on Adverse Reactions, has filed two Citizen Petitions to the FDA about Levaquin—the first, asking for warnings about peripheral neuropathy; the other, mitochondrial toxicity.

In the petition, Bennett noted that more than 80,000 complaints about the drug had been filed to the FDA between 1997 and 2011 and that—due to the FDA’s weak reporting system—there were likely tens of thousands more. “We are talking about going into the physician’s office, having a little sniffle, walking out with an antibiotic and shortly after having these kinds of problems,” Dr. Bennett told local news.

A pharmacological epidemiologist named Mahyar Etminan told The New York Times that “lazy doctors” prescribing them for minor infections were “trying to kill a fly with an automatic weapon.” In July, a team at ABC acquired FDA documents showing that the number of serious adverse reactions to Levaquin has soared to 200,000—including at least 3,000 deaths.

This past November, in one of the biggest hearings on the drug to date, 30 patients suffering serious side effects went before a panel of experts at the FDA.

Among them was Michael Christian Kaferly, an engineer with a young son whose body began deteriorating in 2008 while he was taking Levaquin to treat a minor cold. “I quickly went from an intelligent and healthy man who worked out almost daily to being bedridden, unable to understand the world around me and in horrific pain not of this earth,” Kaferly told the panel.

Seven years later, Kaferly—who was diagnosed with mitochondrial damage—said Levaquin had “hijacked” his life. “In 2008 there was no warning about mitochondrial damage,” he said. “If the FDA protected me and allowed me to make an informed decision, I absolutely would have chosen to keep the cough.”

Also on the panel was 45-year-old Rachel Brummert, who suffered nerve damage and 10 ruptured tendons after taking Levaquin for a sinus infection. “I am living proof that the risks in using a fluorquinolone to treat a routine infection far outweighs the benefits,” Brummert told the panel. The panel agreed with her, voting 21 to 0 that Levaquin is not appropriate for minor infections.

The group urged the FDA to take make this clear on the label, which it has not done.

While the FDA said it does not comment specifically on pending legal matters, it has released a statement saying that it “takes concerns raised about drugs very seriously.” Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the branch of Johnson & Johnson that makes the drug, told The Daily Beast that its “first priority is the well-being of the people” who take Levaquin.

Jennifer Norton, a spokesperson for Janssen, confirmed that the drug is still marketed as appropriate for uncomplicated urinary tract infections, a condition which she says it has “proven to be safe and effective” in treating.

Since its release, Levaquin has been prescribed over 300 million times. Norton says that despite the recommendations of the FDA panel, that the company believes the existing label “appropriately reflects the current understanding of the safety and efficacy of the fluoroquinolone class,” adding that Janssen is continuing to work with the FDA panel as part of an “ongoing collaboration to support the safe and appropriate use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics.”

One of the members of the November panel was Dr. Tobias Gerhard, a researcher at Rutgers University and pharmacoepidemiologist who looks at the effects and safety of drugs in populations. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Gerhard said that he left the meeting in which 30 patients shared their plight convinced that safety warnings about the drugs have not been adequately communicated to them

“What became clear in the advisory committee hearing is that the patients weren’t aware of these risks,” says Gerhard. “It wasn’t a conscious decision and a risk they knowingly agreed to take.” Gerhard says that if quinolones were prescribed less frequently as first-line treatments for mild conditions, as they should be, the serious side effects would occur more rarely. “It’s difficult for doctors. Generally they feel that quinolones are safe—and for the vast majority of cases they are,” he says. “But if you give quinolones to enough people, you’ll see a significant number of serious adverse effects, even if they are rare.”

Michael Carome, the new director of Public Citizen’s Research Group, takes a less measured approach at Levaquin, calling it one of the most overused antibiotics in the country. “It’s overprescribed for uncomplicated things,” he said. “There are much safer antibiotics that people should use.”

Carome is not shy about implicating the pharmaceutical industry.

“Too often the reason the drugs are overprescribed is because of aggressive marketing by drug reps and other people who push the newest drugs to physicians,” he said. “That’s one contributing factor; the other is that physicians and other prescribers aren’t well informed.”

Despite the drug’s severe side effects, Carome isn’t advocating to get it off the market (which Public Citizen has succeeded in doing with 38 drugs). “For certain infections, such as a serious UTI where you’ve become septic, fluoroquinolones’ benefits outweigh these risks,” he says. Instead, like other activists, Carome wants the pharmaceutical industries to stop marketing the drug for minor infections—a concept that, given their billion-dollar budgets, will only happen if the FDA changes the label.

Whether Klayman’s lawsuit will go to court or not remains to be seen. If so, given the CDC’s new report calling one in three antibiotic prescriptions unnecessary, it’s likely to have company.

Stephen Hawking’s Warning: Abandon Earth—Or Face Extinction.

Let’s face it: The planet is heating up, Earth’s population is expanding at an exponential rate, and the the natural resources vital to our survival are running out faster than we can replace them with sustainable alternatives. Even if the human race manages not to push itself to the brink of nuclear extinction, it is still a foregone conclusion that our aging sun will expand and swallow the Earth in roughly 7.6 billion years.

So, according to famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it’s time to free ourselves from Mother Earth. “I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space,” Hawking tells Big Think. “It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”

Hawking says he is an optimist, but his outlook for the future of man’s existence is fairly bleak. In the recent past, humankind’s survival has been nothing short of “a question of touch and go” he says, citing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 as just one example of how man has narrowly escaped extinction. According to the Federation of American Scientists there are still about 22,600 stockpiled nuclear weapons scattered around the planet, 7,770 of which are still operational. In light of the inability of nuclear states to commit to a global nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the threat of a nuclear holocaust has not subsided.

In fact, “the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future,” says Hawking, “We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully.”

Even if humans manage to avoid a nuclear stand-off over the next thousand years, our fate on this planet is still pretty much certain. University of Sussex astrophysicist Dr. Robert Smith says eventually the aging Sun will accelerate global warming to a point where all of Earth’s water will simply evaporate.

“Life on Earth will have disappeared long before 7.6 billion years,” says Smith, “Scientists have shown that the Sun’s slow expansion will cause the temperature at the surface of the Earth to rise. Oceans will evaporate, and the atmosphere will become laden with water vapor, which (like carbon dioxide) is a very effective greenhouse gas. Eventually, the oceans will boil dry and the water vapor will escape into space. In a billion years from now the Earth will be a very hot, dry and uninhabitable ball.”

Finally, between the next thousand years or so that Hawking says it will take man to make the planet uninhabitable and the billion years it will take for the sun to turn our planet into an arid wasteland, there is always the chance that a nearby supernova, an asteroid, or a quick and painless black hole could do us in.


One way or another, the life on Earth will likely become uninhabitable for mankind in the future. We need to start seriously thinking about how we will free ourselves from the constraints of this dying planet.

Why We Should Reject This Idea

Despite what Hawking describes as humankind’s “selfish and aggressive instinct,” there may be some biological impediments to finding another planet to inhabit.

“The nearest star [to Earth] is Proxima Centauri which is 4.2 light years away,” saysUniversity of Michigan astrophysicist Katherine Freese, “That means that, if you were traveling at the speed of light the whole time, it would take 4.2 years to get there.”

Unfortunately, at the moment we can only travel at about ten thousandth of light speed, which means if man were to use chemical fuel rockets similar to the those used during the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey would take about 50,000 years. Without the use of a science-fiction-like warp drive or cryogenic freezing technology, no human would live long enough to survive the journey. In addition, “the radiation you would encounter alone would kill you, even if you could get a rocket to go anywhere near that fast,” says Freese.

On the upside, if man ever develops the technology to travel at the speed of light while remaining shielded from cosmic radiation, he could effectively travel into the future. “A five year trip at light speed could push an astronaut forward by 1000 earth years,” says Freese, “If he wanted to see if any humans were still around by then.”

Netherlands sex abuse victim granted euthanasia for “incurable” PTSD, stoking assisted suicide debate in Europe

Papers published recently by the Dutch Euthanasia Commission reportedly revealed that a woman in her twenties was allowed to go ahead with assisted suicide based on psychiatrists’ decision that her mental health condition was “insufferable,” and it was therefore illegal to deny her life-ending drugs.

The woman, who has not been identified, was sexually abused between the ages of 5 and 15, according to Britain’s Independent.

Multiple reports cited the documents published by the Commission as stating the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the woman suffered due to the abuse was “incurable,” enabling the approval under Dutch law of her request for euthanasia.

The Telegraph reports that the young woman was not an isolated case, and in fact, the rate of approved assisted suicides in the Netherlands for patients suffering from mental disorders has increased dramatically since the procedure was first made legal.

In 2010, only two people were granted euthanasia due to “insufferable” mental conditions, while The Telegraph said that number rose to 56 in 2015, according to the documents released by the Commission.

In remarks likely to cause even greater concern for foes of assisted suicide in Europe, one of the psychiatrists who grants approval for the procedure based on mental illness at the Netherlands euthanasia clinic told The Telegraphshe believes doctors are still “too hesitant” to give the nod in such cases.

The psychiatrist, Paulan Starcke, was due to give a speech — entitled “Condemned to live with unbearable psychiatric suffering, or allowed to die?” – on Thursday at a conference on euthanasia in Amsterdam.

Euthanasia was legalized in the Netherlands in 2002, and the procedure has seen a significant rise in the country since then, with people from across the world traveling to its End-of-Life clinic.

The Bacteria On Your Scalp Could Be Key To Fighting Dandruff.




Dandruff is a condition that affects 50 percent of the population worldwide. But maintaining the right balance of bacteria on the scalp could be a key factor in preventing it.

Research has shown that the bacteria that live on and inside us can influence our digestion, our weight, our mood, and now even our scalps. According to a recent study, the specific collection of bacteria that resides beneath our hair could influence how much dandruff we’ll develop. The work was published today in Scientific Reports.

Dandruff affects almost 50 percent of the population worldwide. And while the condition’s causes have been studied for quite some time, no one has been able to completely pinpoint on its cause. Researchers know that microorganisms, both bacteria and fungi, can influence dandruff, but exactly which bugs were to blame has remained mysterious.

Scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China took samples of dandruff from 59 people, aged 18 to 60 years old, who had washed their hair 48 hours prior to the study. The researchers then separated the volunteers into two groups–healthy and dandruff–based on how much dandruff was found. To understand the reason for the difference, he compared the bacteria and fungi found on the two different groups (taking into account factors like age and sex).

It turns out that the specific type of bacteria and how much of it you have on your scalp can have a big influence on the amount of dandruff you get. The researchers found two species of bacteria that dominate your scalp:Propionibacterium and Staphylococcus. But their abundance differed drastically between the healthy and dandruff groups. In the healthy group,Propionibacterium made up the majority of the scalp bacteria, andStaphylococcus made up much less. But in the dandruff group, the opposite was true.

dandruff study chart


Individuals who had more dandruff had a different balance of Propionibacterium (blue) to Staphylococcus (red) compared to healthy individuals with no dandruff.

What’s the reason for the difference? Scientists think that our sebum–the term for that collection of dead skin and oil on our scalps–could be feeding the Propionibacterium bacteria. Keeping the proper balance ofPropionibacterium to Staphylococcus could be a key aspect to controlling dandruff. And the more moisture on the scalp, the higher the level ofPropionibacterium.

These findings could help researchers come up with better treatments, like creating better anti-dandruff shampoos, possibly ones that contain nutrients that feed Propionibacterium but not Staphylococcus.


When you take acetaminophen, you don’t feel others’ pain as much.

The popular painkiller reduces empathy, study finds

Researchers at The Ohio State University found, for example, that when participants who took acetaminophen learned about the misfortunes of others, they thought these individuals experienced less pain and suffering, when compared to those who took no painkiller.

“These findings suggest other people’s pain doesn’t seem as big of a deal to you when you’ve taken acetaminophen,” said Dominik Mischkowski, co-author of the study and a former Ph.D. student at Ohio State, now at the National Institutes of Health.

Dominik Mischkowski

“Acetaminophen can reduce empathy as well as serve as a painkiller.”

Mischkowski conducted the study with Baldwin Way, who is an assistant professor of psychology and member of the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research; and Jennifer Crocker, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology and professor of psychology at Ohio State. Their results were published online in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.

Acetaminophen – the main ingredient in the painkiller Tylenol – is the most common drug ingredient in the United States, found in more than 600 medicines, according to theConsumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade group.

Each week about 23 percent of American adults (about 52 million people) use a medicine containing acetaminophen, the CHPA reports.

In an earlier study, Way and other colleagues found that acetaminophen also blunts positive emotions like joy.

Taken together, the two studies suggest there’s a lot we need to learn about one of the most popular over-the-counter drugs in the United States.

“We don’t know why acetaminophen is having these effects, but it is concerning,” said Way, the senior author of the study.

“Empathy is important. If you are having an argument with your spouse and you just took acetaminophen, this research suggests you might be less understanding of what you did to hurt your spouse’s feelings.”

The researchers conducted two experiments, the first involving 80 college students. At the beginning, half the students drank a liquid containing 1,000 mg of acetaminophen, while the other half drank a placebo solution that contained no drug. The students didn’t know which group they were in.

After waiting one hour for the drug to take effect, the participants read eight short scenarios in which someone suffered some sort of pain. For example, one scenario was about a person who suffered a knife cut that went down to the bone and another was about a person experiencing the death of his father.

Participants rated the pain each person in the scenarios experienced from 1 (no pain at all) to 5 (worst possible pain). They also rated how much the protagonists in the scenarios felt hurt, wounded and pained.

Overall, the participants who took acetaminophen rated the pain of the people in the scenarios to be less severe than did those who took the placebo.

A second experiment involved 114 college students. As in the first experiment, half took acetaminophen and half took the placebo.

In one part of the experiment, the participants received four two-second blasts of white noise that ranged from 75 to 105 decibels. They then rated the noise blasts on a scale of 1 (not unpleasant at all) to 10 (extremely unpleasant).

They were then asked to imagine how much pain the same noise blasts would cause in another anonymous study participant.

Results showed that, when compared to those who took the placebo, participants who took acetaminophen rated the noise blasts as less unpleasant for themselves – and also thought they would be less unpleasant for others.

“Acetaminophen reduced the pain they felt, but it also reduced their empathy for others who were experiencing the same noise blasts,” Mischkowski said.

In another part of the experiment, participants met and socialized with each other briefly. Each participant then watched, alone, an online game that purportedly involved three of the people they just met. (The other participants weren’t actually involved).

In the “game,” two of the people the participants had met excluded the third person from the activity.

Participants were then asked to rate how much pain and hurt feelings the students in the game felt, including the one who was excluded.

Results showed that people who took acetaminophen rated the pain and hurt feelings of the excluded student as being not as severe as did the participants who took the placebo.

“In this case, the participants had the chance to empathize with the suffering of someone who they thought was going through a socially painful experience,” Way said.

“Still, those who took acetaminophen showed a reduction in empathy. They weren’t as concerned about the rejected person’s hurt feelings.”

While these results had not been seen before, they make sense in the light of previous research, Way said.

A 2004 study scanned the brains of people as they were experiencing pain and while they were imagining other people feeling the same pain. Those results showed that the same part of the brain was activated in both cases.

“In light of those results, it is understandable why using Tylenol to reduce your pain may also reduce your ability to feel other people’s pain as well,” he said.

The researchers are continuing to study how acetaminophen may affect people’s emotions and behavior, Way said. They are also beginning to study another common pain reliever – ibuprofen – to see if it has similar results.

Is Zika How Humanity Ends?

Probably not, but pathogens that damage brains may earn a special place in cosmic hell.

Are humans special?

The answer to this question naturally depends on the context. If you ask whether we’re special in comparison to the rest of life on the Earth, then the answer is that we’re both special and not-special, like pretty much every single species of living thing. On the other hand, if you ask whether we’re special in a cosmic sense – as the sole known example of complex, thinking, technological life in the universe – the answer is ‘perhaps’.

We can also pick apart our genetic heritage in some detail to look for clues. We can further match that molecular history to paleontological finds and archeological evidence of what our direct ancestors and hominid relatives were getting up to millions of years ago. In that mass of data are all kinds of things that point to specialness. There are genes for certain digestive enzymes, evidence of particular retrovirus resistance or susceptibility, and physiological traits that either lead or follow the capacity for language and society.

Of course a similar story is typically true of any modern species. Pick a tree shrew or a wombat, a dogfish or a stick insect and you’ll find a remarkable evolutionary tale. The trajectory through the past is full of ‘Wow!’ moments for any living thing.

But humans. Well, humans do have these remarkable brains. While we’re far from alone in terms of size and neuron count (elephants for example have approximately 300 billion neurons compared to our 100 billion), the twists and turns of natural selection have left us with certain capabilities that put us in a novel position.

We’re the only species on Earth (apart perhaps from some hardly microbial forms) capable of getting off-world and surviving the experience. We’re the only species capable of (and interested in) self-examination and world-examination – in a way that has led us to mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, computation and technology. Minds have brought us food, health, and individual longevity.

Degrade those neural networks and we don’t just become drastically less capable, we can quickly become incapable of even rudimentary survival. That is true for individuals, it is also true for our species.

So the spread of a still-poorly-understood pathogen like the Zika virus, one that seems to have a specially damaging effect on forming human brains, is particularly worrying. If, as seems to be the case, Zika can be transmitted not just via mosquito bites but also through human sexual contact, this virus is going to be tough to deal with.

Of course we’ve also become pretty adept at making vaccines, andinhibitory drugs, so with luck it will be possible to prevent Zika from causing too much more damage and heartache than it has already.

But Zika isn’t the only virus or infection that attacks developing brains. Other unlovely agents, like a newly identified ‘parechovirus’, can cause problems, and many other known infections and medical situations can result in neurological issues.

From a global perspective though, something like Zika – emerging relatively quickly and with a seemingly diverse and efficient set of mechanisms for dispersal – is particularly chilling. It doesn’t kill us immediately, it simply prevents our minds from developing fully in the first place. It damages that very thing that makes us a special species.

While in no way trying to trivialize the very real danger and pain of Zika today and in the coming months, I think that it is also worth considering this type of pathogen in the broader context of intelligent life in the universe. It’s an intellectual exercise for sure, but leaving it unsaid doesn’t seem any wiser than stating it.

What if the thing that destroys us as a species is not a vast physical calamity (asteroid, climate change, nuclear war) or a comparatively simple disease that kills us on the spot, but something truly insidious? A change wrought in our brains, an infection – or range of infections – that over time acts to stop us being an intelligent, technological life-form.

And what if this is a challenge that faces all intelligent life anywhere? Viruses are incredible opportunists, if there’s a way to operate they’ll find it. If complex growing neurons (or some cosmic equivalent) are a good incubator then at some point nature’s endless molecular search engine will produce some kind of pathogen to take advantage of the situation.

We of course don’t know that viruses are any more universal than our biology and our types of brain are. But it seems that if there are other biospheres out there on a par with the Earth it’s a pretty good bet they will at least as complex at all levels.

If pathogens arise that explicitly target brains it might not always be the case that they’re fast acting or very obvious. One could imagine that by the time a species recognizes what’s going on it’s no longer smart enough (at least collectively) to solve the problem. Or (perhaps worse) a species fails to notice at all, and its civilization dims into the eternal night of neural simplicity, never quite understanding why.

So it’s possible that here is another addition to the long list of reasons for the seeming absence of other civilizations in the universe: intelligence will always be beaten by pathogens capable of degrading minds.

I am sure that some of these ideas run roughshod over all manner of insights to the nature of viruses, other pathogens, brain development, and evolutionary biology. But ideas are just that, they’re there to be dismissed or debated, while we still can.