HealthZette

Can a Common Cold Sore Predict Alzheimer’s?

Dementia experts urge a close look at the compelling connection

Over 30 renowned dementia experts from around the world warn that viruses such as herpes could be causing dementia — and they want an urgent investigation into this particular avenue of research. If the link proves to be true, it could be a game-changer in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

Chlamydia bacteria, as well as the herpes virus (the one that causes cold sores) are named as suspects in causing the disease. A bacteria called spirochaete, which is corkscrew in shape, is also suspected.

In a new editorial published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, the experts suggest that viral or bacterial infections trigger the plaque build-up in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s. The experts also claim that targeting the infection specifically with antimicrobial drugs could, in fact, halt dementia.

Professor Douglas Kell of the University of Manchester’s School of Chemistry wrote in the editorial, “We are saying that there is incontrovertible evidence that Alzheimer’s Disease has a dormant microbial component. We can’t keep ignoring all of the evidence,” The Telegraph reported.

Others, however, caution against drawing firm conclusions. John Hardy, a professor of neuroscience in the U.K., said, “This is a minority view in Alzheimer research,” adding there has been “no convincing proof” that infections cause the disease. “We need always to keep an open mind but this editorial does not reflect what most researchers think about Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

Scientists are more focused on trying to find treatments that would prevent the build-up of plaque in the brain rather than what triggers that plaque, reports The Telegraph, as well as treatments to target “misfolded” proteins in the brain. These buildups and misfolds prevent neurons from communicating with each other.

“Alzheimer’s is affecting one of my dearest friends whom I’ve known since childhood,” a Maryland woman in her 70s told LifeZette. “It has been hard to watch the disease change my friend and challenge her family with both her daily needs. You ‘lose’ the person, in a sense. How wonderful it would be if science came up with a blood test to see if a virus was causing Alzheimer’s.”

A mother of two in New York also described the pain of seeing a neighbor fade away from the disease. “She forgot what season it was. She didn’t recognize familiar cars on the street. She couldn’t identify any of us any longer. It was so sad and our heart went out to her family.”

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The 31 researchers urge a parallel focus on possible causes. “We write to express our concern that one particular aspect of the disease has been neglected, even though treatment based on it might slow or arrest Alzheimer’s disease progression,” they wrote in the editorial. “We refer to the many studies, mainly on humans, implicating specific microbes in the elderly brain, notably herpes simplex virus type 1, chlamydia pneumoniae and several types of spirochatete,” they continued.

The herpes link could affect millions in the fight against Alzheimer’s. Some two-thirds of people will acquire the herpes virus at some point in their lives, whether they are aware of it or not, The Telegraph reported.

In the U.S., one in three seniors has Alzheimer’s; two-thirds of sufferers are women. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., according to Alz.org.

Viruses and bacteria are common in the brains of elderly people, the experts noted when discussing the link between virus and dementia. Although usually dormant, these viruses can become active after stress or if the immune system is compromised.

Another wrinkle in the process of unlocking effective treatment and a cure for Alzheimer’s is this: Is it possible that a genetic mutation causes both a heightened susceptibility to infectious disease and to developing Alzheimer’s — and does this further point to a viral component?

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The researchers said a gene mutation named APOE e4, which makes one in five people more susceptible to Alzheimer’s disease, also raises their susceptibility to viral and infectious disease. Scientists already know that viral infections in the brain cause symptoms such as those seen in Alzheimer’s patients — mental decline and mood change, among others — and experts say the link has been “neglected” for too long.

The idea that viruses and bacteria may cause dementia isn’t new: A 2013 study from the University of Central Lancashire (UCL) School of Medicine and Dentistry found that people with poor oral hygiene or who are suffering from gum disease may be at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

The research noted the presence of products from Porphyromonas gingivalis, a bacterium, in the brains of dementia sufferers, according to the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Meanwhile, those who are watching loved ones suffer from the terrible disease wait every day for news of a cure.

“We need to find an answer to this disease,” said the Maryland woman whose friend is suffering from Alzheimer’s. “It is our prayer — those of us who love her and have to watch her suffer with it — that the funding of good research into any and all possible causes continues.”