by Milo Moran
The Herpes virus is a lifelong ailment: once you have it, it is incurable. Lying dormant in the body, it usually does not cause any symptoms. It comes in two forms; Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) 1 and HSV2.
HSV1 is usually transmitted by mouth to mouth contact and causes cold sores. There are 3.7 billion people under the age of 50 who have it. About 40% of students have it, but by the age of 60 that number becomes 52%. HSV2 is sexually transmitted and affects the genitals; 417 million people worldwide have this variant.
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative condition which causes short term memory loss, disorientation, behavioural issues, loss of bodily functions, and ultimately death. There are roughly 30 million people with it today, but the rate of diagnosis is increasing and by 2050 the number will be closer to 128 million.
Professor Ruth Itzhaki, of the University of Manchester’s Division of Neuroscience and Experimental Psychology has been researching a link between the two for decades, and recently published her findings in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. She said ‘HSV1 could account for 50% of Alzheimer’s disease cases,’ but that the involvement of a virus does not make Alzheimer’s contagious.
Professor Itzhaki found evidence indicating that people with certain genes were more severely affected by the Herpes virus, and that each time HSV1 awakened from its dormant state it gradually wears away at the brain, causing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Therefore antiviral drugs could slow the progression of the disease, but there is very little available data to support this.
Itzhaki analysed the findings of a Taiwanese study, which compared 8,362 people over the age of 50 with either HSV1 or HSV2 to 25,086 people without Herpes. Those with HSV were more likely to develop dementia – 28% did – but those who took antiviral medication for their Herpes only developed Alzheimer’s 5% of the time.
It is thought that the drugs prevent the virus from attacking the brain and nervous system, and in light of 130 other publications which found the same link, Professor Itzhaki recommended ‘a short dose of anti-Herpes antivirals’ for those between 30 and 40 years old as this ‘could prevent dementia.’
John Hardy, a neuroscience professor at University College London said he had “been skeptical” of Dr Itzhaki’s work, but that the role of infections in disease was worthy of study. Whatever this means for the future, let’s hope the treatment of terrible diseases such as Alzheimer’s can improve.