Herpes virus may play role in Alzheimer's

Ebony Scott
June 26, 2018

Scientists have discovered that two highly common herpes viruses tend to be present in an "increased" way in the brains of people who suffered from Alzheimer's, according to a study published Thursday in Neuron of almost 1,000 postmortem brains. The researchers found higher levels of HHV-6A and HHV-7 in Alzheimer's patient brain samples compared with brains unaffected by Alzheimer's. While this discovery surprised the researchers, they continued to follow the path and what they learned was that the genes were "two incredibly common and closely related herpesviruses that are known to cause childhood rashes and fevers", and they are so common that nearly everyone has them. That's according to a new study, which came out Thursday. In their detailed analysis, researchers examined the postmortem brains of 622 people with Alzheimer's disease, and 322 brains of people without it, and found two herpes viruses that were abundant in the Alzheimer's brains.

They found a lot of interactions, suggesting the viruses could even switch on and off Alzheimer's-related genes.

HHV 6A and 7 are common herpesviruses to which most are exposed as children.

However, others were more sceptical. From as early as the 1950s, people have been making assumptions that pathogens could be the main contributors of the disease.

During the 14 months that the two studies have been stuck in publication limbo, experimental Alzheimer's drugs based on the quarter-century-old "amyloid cascade hypothesis" have been flaming out, each more spectacularly than before. The term "multi-omic" is used as shorthand to imply that data from genes, proteins, fats, and other tissue components are all assessed and then represented qualitatively and quantitatively in a complex mathematical model.

"Our hypothesis is that they put gas on the flame", Joel Dudley, an author of the study and an associate professor of genetics and genomic sciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai in New York City, told NPR.

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The theory that viruses could contribute to the development of dementia arose in the 1950s.

Alzheimer's disease is a neurodegenerative pathology, that is to say, caused by progressive destruction of brain neurons.

"While these findings do potentially open the door for new treatment options to explore in a disease where we've had hundreds of failed trials, they don't change anything that we know about the risk and susceptibility of Alzheimer's disease or our ability to treat it today", said Gandy. "A similar situation arose recently in certain forms of Lou Gehrig's disease".

The National Institute on Aging, which funded the research, said in a statement stressed the need for the matter to be investigated further in order to draw a definitive conclusion on whether herpes can "trigger" the disease or help in spreading.

Dudley said this kind of research has always been controversial in the community.

Additional work performed in this study was supported by U01 AG046170, R56AG058469, and philanthropic financial support was provided by Katherine Gehl.

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