Alzheimer’s disease: New risk factor found for cognitive decline – ‘Cold sore virus’

Alzheimer's: Dr Chris discusses the early signs of condition

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Researchers from Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing, Tufts University and the University of Manchester have discovered there is “growing evidence” that one common virus is involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The herpes simplex virus type (HSV-1), the so-called “cold sore virus”, which lies dormant – aside from occasional breakouts – could be linked to cognitive decline. Professor Ruth Itzhaki described the finding as “striking”, adding that the virus that resides in the peripheral nervous system could be reactivated by stress.

The 30-year research project, where Professor Itzhaki and her team have been investigating the viral link to Alzheimer’s disease, found that HSV-1 DNA is present in the brain of numerous older people.

The researchers later indicated that the virus, when in the brain, in combination with a specific genetic factor, confers a higher risk of developing dementia.

Subsequent studies revealed “major links” between the effects of the cold sore virus and characteristic features of Alzheimer’s disease.

Signs of Alzheimer’s disease

The NHS detailed early and later symptoms of the progressive brain disease.

People who have early Alzheimer’s disease may:

  • Forget about recent conversations or events
  • Misplace items
  • Forget the names of places and objects
  • Have trouble thinking of the right word
  • Ask questions repetitively
  • Show poor judgement or find it harder to make decisions
  • Become less flexible and more hesitant to try new things.

“There are often signs of mood changes, such as increasing anxiety or agitation, or periods of confusion,” the national health body added.

In the later stages of the disease, an affected person may experience:

  • Increasing confusion and disorientation – for example, getting lost, or wandering and not knowing what time of day it is
  • Obsessive, repetitive or impulsive behaviour
  • Delusions (believing things that are untrue) or feeling paranoid and suspicious about carers or family members
  • Problems with speech or language (aphasia)
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Changes in mood, such as frequent mood swings, depression and feeling increasingly anxious, frustrated or agitated
  • Difficulty performing spatial tasks, such as judging distances
  • Seeing or hearing things that other people do not (hallucinations).

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Research has shown that treating laboratory-grown HSV1-infected cells with antivirals protects against Alzheimer’s disease.

Further support for the casual role for HSV-1 in Alzheimer’s disease was demonstrated by Dana Cairns in David Kaplan’s laboratory at the Tufts School of Engineering.

Using a 3D bioengineered human brain tissue model, an infection with HSV-1 resulted in amyloid plaque-like formation and brain inflammation.

In the latest study, published today in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Professor Itzhaki noted that the varicella zoster virus (VZV), which causes chickenpox and shingles, could reactivate latent HSV-1 in the brain.

As such, this re-triggering of the HSV-1 virus could lead to the formation of Alzheimer’s-like damage in the brain.

Professor Itzhaki said: “This striking result appears to confirm that, in humans, infections such as VZV can cause an increase in inflammation in the brain, which can reactivate dormant HSV-1.

“The damage in the brain by repeated infections over a lifetime would lead eventually to the development of Alzheimer’s disease/dementia.

“This would mean vaccines could play a greater role than just protecting against a single disease…

“They could also indirectly, by reducing infections, provide some protection against Alzheimer’s.”

Proven ways to minimise the risk of Alzheimer’s disease includes being a non-smoker, eating a healthy diet, and exercising for 150 minutes each week.

Furthermore, social interaction, wearing a hearing aid (when needed), and addressing depression could help to stave off cognitive decline.

It is also important to keep the brain mentally stimulated, which can involve quizzes, crosswords, and playing chess.

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