AlzU Blog

Could the Herpes Virus Play a Role in Alzheimer’s Disease?

If you are a college student, you may be surprised to learn that now is the best time to begin following a healthy lifestyle regimen for Alzheimer’s prevention.  This involves learning about the latest studies, and what does, and does not impact the risk of Alzheimer’s in late life.

In a recent study,  researchers evaluated data from three major brain banks,  courtesy of the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Accelerating Medicines Partnership—Alzheimer’s Disease (AMP-AD) consortium.  The consortium and NIH allowed the researchers to examine people with Alzheimer&r’s disease (AD) in various groups in a cohort study.

What is a Cohort Study?

A cohort study is a longitudinal study that samples a group of people who share a defining characteristic—such as having Alzheimer’s disease. A longitudinal study is a research method in which data are gathered from the same subjects repeatedly, over a specific time-span. The study participants are evaluated at regular time intervals.

The Study

The study of people with Alzheimer’s, which was recently published in the journal Neuron, found some evidence that the herpes virus may be more predominant in the brains of people with AD.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence that points to the possibility of viruses being involved in Alzheimer&r’s disease—and may eventually lead to new types of AD treatment.

Finding the underlying cause (and effective treatment) for Alzheimer’s has been a very long quest for medical research scientists.  This is partially due to the long, slow progression of the disease.  Another big challenge when it comes to AD research involves the collection of brain tissue needed for samples in lab studies.

Viruses and Alzheimer’s Disease

“The title of the talk that I usually give is, ‘I Went Looking for Drug Targets and All I Found Were These Lousy Viruses.’ We didn’t set out to find what we found. Not even close. We were trying to find drugs that could be repurposed to treat Alzheimer’s patients, but the patterns that emerged from our data-driven analysis all pointed towards these viral biology themes,” says co-senior author and geneticist Joel Dudley.

The scientists in the study overcame one of the biggest Alzheimer’s research challenges by collecting brain samples from deceased patients—with Alzheimer’s disease. “This kind of analysis was only possible because the consortium had coordinated for all of these other groups to put their sequencing data in the AMP-AD Knowledge Portal in a precompetitive environment that let us very quickly replicate our work across all these different cohorts. We needed access to sequences that are usually discarded in the course of studying the human genome. We needed to search for sequences from hundreds of different viruses, so having access to that raw, unprocessed data was absolutely key,” said study author Ben Readhead.

The Study Findings

In the study, the researchers were able to show that human herpesvirus DNA and RNA were more prevalent in postmortem (after death) brains of people who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The two specific types of herpes viruses the researchers found most strongly associated with Alzheimer’s, were HHV-6A and HHV-7 The herpes viruses were not as abundant in the brains of those with other neurodegenerative diseases (an illness of the brain, that worsens over time, such as Parkinson’s disease). 

What is HHV-6A and HHV-7?

HHV-6B and HHV-7 are considered variations of the common contagious childhood illness, Roseola.  It involves an infection with symptoms of mild fever and rash.  Rosella is so common, that most children—nearly 90%—have already been affected by the infection by the time they start kindergarten.

HHV-7 infection can lead to or is associated with a number of other symptoms, including fever, respiratory disease, rash, vomiting, diarrhea or even febrile seizures.  But, often times there are no symptoms at all.

It’s important to note that HHV-6B and HHV-7 are different forms than the herpes virus than the type that is sexually transmitted.  HHV-6B and HHV-7 also differ from the strain of the virus commonly known to cause cold sore blisters.

The researchers hypothesize that beta-amyloid protein (the abnormal sticky substance in the brain, considered a hallmark symptom of Alzheimer’s disease) may build up as part of the body’s defense against infections.

The Future of Alzheimer’s Research

The study authors say that the research findings should not cause alarm to anyone, who may be concerned because they have had the herpes virus. “While these findings do potentially open the door to 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,” says co-senior author and Alzheimer’s disease specialist Sam Gandy.

Alzheimer’s research provides hope for college students,who may not have to face the staggering numbers of people projected to have this disease by the time the students reach middle age.  Staying educated is one of many important aspects of Alzheimer’s prevention for college students.

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