Previous WFPL guest Jonah Lehrer is better known as a respected science writer and contributing editor toWired magazine. He recently wrote a story about the science of stress. In it, he explored the dangers of chronic stress and a possible cure for those dangers. Here’s how the article ends.

After several years of genetic engineering — it’s not easy to substitute all the dangerous genes with their therapeutic replacements — Sapolsky began introducing the modified herpes virus into rodent brains. Then he induced a series of tragedies, such as a massive stroke or an extended seizure, which would trigger the release of glucocorticoids. (Chronic stress is like a slow-motion stroke.) Within minutes, the modified herpes virus began pumping out neuroprotective proteins, which limited the extent of cell death. As a result, the damage was contained. For instance, rats given the herpes treatment were able to stave off practically all cell loss, while control rats lost nearly 40 percent of neurons in a given region. In the hippocampus, neuronal death was reduced substantially. “To be honest, I’m still amazed that it works,” he says. “It’s not going to help anybody soon” — the research is still years away from clinical trials — “but we’ve proved that it’s possible. We can reduce the neural damage caused by stress.”

But as Lehrer recently wrote on his blog, the story has been twisted. The Wired article was picked up by the Daily Mail in London. The paper compressed the article and suggested that scientists are developing a cure for stress. That led some readers to assume that scientists are developing a vaccine that would neutralize stress and make humans too complacent to fight off fascist government forces. Right-wing radio host Alex Jones then ran with the reinvented story, claiming that “elites” are developing a brain-eating vaccine. The story plays on multiple conspiracy theories and existing anti-government fears. Plus, it’s original source is a Rhodes scholar (though the eventual story is indistinguishable from Lehrer’s original piece).

And so that’s how a pass reference to a plan to reduce brain damage became a vast conspiracy.

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