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A 'disease of the head' affecting horses, as described in the 17th Century is now known as Borna disease. Research over the past 100 years has established that the aetiological agent, Borna disease virus (BDV), is an unsegmented, single- and negative-stranded, enveloped ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus which represents the family Bornaviridae in the order Mononegavirales. The virus exists world-wide in horses, sheep, cattle, cats, dogs and ostriches. The infection can be fatal, but the majority of carriers are persistently infected without showing symptoms. The association with psychiatric diseases in humans led to an international explosion of research on BDV, with centres established in Germany, the United States of America and Japan. Experimental infections of tree shrews and rats served to examine the effects of persistent and overt disease, most excitingly, virus-induced behavioural changes, and emotional and learning deficits. This 'emerging' virus infection shows complex pathogenetic mechanisms in the nervous system, but also spreads through myelo-monocytic cells. Diagnosis can be made serologically, but detection of antigen markers in peripheral white blood cells, combined with nucleic acid amplification is more profitable. Comparative RNA studies reveal an unusually high genetic homology of viruses. Isolates recovered from humans and equines suggest species-specificity. Vaccination is not an advisable strategy, but antiviral therapy, especially with amantadine sulphate, promises efficacy in human mood disorders, and is effective in vitro. Infections with BDV follow a vulnerability principle to cause disease. Although cross-species transmission of this commensal virus has not been proven, zoonotic aspects of BDV should be carefully considered.