Herpes virus may have a connection to Alzheimer’s disease

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The researchers were using complex genetic data from hundreds of brains at several brain banks to compare differences between people who'd died with Alzheimer's and the cognitively normal. Lead study author Dr. Benjamin Readhead says almost one of every two brain tissues analyzed had the viruses; it's just that the Alzheimer's brains had up to twice as much. These scientists were not the first who identified this relationship.

However, since the strains were discovered in both Alzheimer's brain tissue and non-Alzheimer's brain tissue, it is quite hard for the researchers to ascertain that Alzheimer's disease is primarily caused by the viruses. Those herpes strains, which cause a mild childhood disease called roseola, are found in 90 percent of children in the United States and usually go dormant in childhood, but can reactivate in times of illness or stress.

But a study in 2014, published in the journal Alzheimer's Research & Therapy, found that this theory might have been wrong all along.

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Alzheimer's disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out simple tasks. This does not suggest that the disease may be contagious, but it does open up the door for more research to look into the possible link between the virus and the disease. They discovered that the virus genes interacted with those genes in the brains cells responsible for increasing a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Gandy said the team were initially "surprised and sceptical" about the results, based on brain tissue from the Mount Sinai Brain bank, and so repeated the study using two further brain banks - in total 622 brains with signs of Alzheimer's and 322 healthy control brains - and detected the very same genes. "I think they're like gas on the flames of some pathology that may be immune-driven". But until recently, it was only a theory, not confirmed by evidence.

That wasn't unusual. Since 1980, other researchers have linked a variety of bacteria and viruses, including another type of herpes that causes cold sores, to an increased risk of Alzheimer's.

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"This is the most compelling evidence ever presented that points to a viral contribution to the cause or progression of Alzheimer's", said study co-author Dr. Sam Gandy, a professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of the Center for Cognitive Health at Mount Sinai in NY.

There have been earlier studies hypothesizing that viral infections could be the key to Alzheimer's disease. Researchers have been down this road before. These viruses can cause encephalitis and other chronic conditions.

"The question remained, OK, in the Alzheimer brain what are the microbes that matter, what are the microbes that trigger the plaque?" said Tanzi, who also had no role in the new research. That's unlikely to be the end of the story.

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