For years, scientists have been hunting for clues as to what causes Alzheimer’s disease. And while their findings this time around may not answer that question, they do appear to be shedding new light on a particular viral infection that could be accelerating the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Since there is currently not any medication that can either cure or prevent Alzheimer’s and no way to effectively delay the disease from progressing for very long, taking extra care to prevent anything that may speed up the disease’s progression acts as an important “preventive” method for Alzheimer’s, even though it’s likely temporary. Now a recent study has come across one of those factors—the herpes virus—and scientists are working to understand the phenomenon better.
Researchers searching for genetic differences between healthy brain tissue and the brain tissue of people with Alzheimer’s disease have found that the HHV-6 and HHV-7 (herpes) viruses exist in abundance in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s and make them more susceptible to infection. They’ve also found evidence that the viruses may interact with brain cells in a way that causes Alzheimer’s to progress more quickly.
“Viruses were the last thing we were looking for,” says Joel Dudley, associate professor of genetics and genomic sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City. “When we started analyzing the differences, it just sort of came screaming out at us from the data.”
The HHV-6 and HHV-7 viruses are best known for the skin rash symptom, known as roseola, they present with, most often in young children. But they cause other issues in the body as well and are capable of traveling to the brain and lying dormant there for decades.
“Our hypothesis is that they put gas on the flame,” Dudley says.
However, the study only proves a correlation between herpes and Alzheimer’s; they can’t prove that the herpes virus is capable of accelerating or exacerbating the disease.
“The data are very provocative, but fall short of showing a direct causal role,” says Dr. Richard Hodes, director of the National Institute on Aging. “And if viral infections are playing a part, they are not the sole actor.”
For now, we’ll have to wait and see what the team comes up with. But in the meantime, it’s a good idea to take preventive measures against herpes and other viral diseases.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?