New studies add evidence to a possible link between Alzheimer’s and herpesvirus

brain scan of cerebral atrophy
A VIRAL LINK? A brain showing cerebral atrophy, a loss of nerve cells, one of the main signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Joel Dudley and his colleagues were searching through datasets for Alzheimer’s disease vulnerabilities to exploit in creating a treatment when they stumbled across a surprising correlation: Many of the brains they looked at had signs of herpesvirus infection. But those from people with Alzheimer’s disease had much higher levels of viral DNA than those from healthy people.

In particular, the researchers found high levels of HHV-6 and HHV-7, two strains of herpesvirus associated with a common childhood illness called roseola, the team reports online June 21 in Neuron.

“We had no intention of looking at viruses,” says Dudley, a biomedical informatics researcher at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who gives a talk jokingly titled, “I went looking for drugs and all I found were these stupid viruses.”

It is unclear whether the herpesviruses contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s, or if Alzheimer’s patients are just more susceptible to these viruses, which can remain latent in the body long after exposure. Genetic factors also influence a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. The researchers did find that the viruses interacted with genes linked with Alzheimer’s disease, though the implications are still murky.

Dudley has now found himself in the middle of a debate between researchers who believe there is a link between infectious pathogens and the degenerative brain disease, and those who do not. One reason for the controversy, says James Leverenz, a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic, is that herpesviruses “are…

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