Alzheimer's 'may be caused by a virus'

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"We needed to search for sequences from hundreds of different viruses, so having access to that raw, unprocessed data was absolutely key", says first author Ben Readhead.

NIH-funded study finds new evidence that viruses may play a role in Alzheimer's disease [news release].

A robust and sophisticated new study has now exploded onto the scene, rekindling the viral hypothesis for Alzheimer's through an accidental discovery.

Like other herpes viruses, HHV moves to nerve cells, especially to a part of the brain called the hippocampus, Gandy said.

One of the primary questions is whether such pathogens play an active, causative role in the disease or enter the brain simply as opportunistic passengers, taking advantage of the neural deterioration characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.

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"This analysis allowed us to identify how the viruses are directly interacting with or coregulating known Alzheimer's genes". In these samples, the scientists saw a persistent increase in human herpes viruses 6A and 7 in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

The research team had been mapping and comparing the biological networks that underlie Alzheimer's disease, based on detailed genetic analyses of more than 600 brain tissue samples.

"This study represents a significant advancement in our understanding of the plausibility of the pathogen hypothesis of Alzheimer's". The researchers initially set out to comprehensively examine DNA, RNA and protein footprints in the brains of deceased Alzheimer's patients with the goal of identifying certain overactive genes in Alzheimer's sufferers that could help direct future drug research. "We were looking for genes that were dysregulated during the progression of Alzheimer's disease". RNA of both HHV-6A and HHV-7 were also higher in the Alzheimer's brains than in healthy brains, and viral RNA levels tracked with the severity of clinical symptoms.

Experts stressed it was not clear if the viruses caused dementia or were caused by it.

"Thus while these data are very interesting and important for future research, they do not definitively support the idea that people with herpes are more likely to develop Alzheimer's." says Spires-Jones.

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This quantified which genes were present in the brain, and whether any were associated with the onset and progression of Alzheimer's.

The researchers suggested that their findings aligned with other current research in the Alzheimer's field on the role of innate immunity in the disease, particularly recent findings that beta-amyloid protein, which is the culprit behind the plaques that build up in the Alzheimer's-affected brain, might accumulate as part of a defense against infections. In their study, they found that herpesviruses were involved in networks that regulate amyloid precursor proteins.

In the United States nine in ten children have one of these viruses circulating in their blood by the time they're a few years old. While a group of dedicated scientists continued to toil away at investigations correlating viral infections with Alzheimer's, the general research community began to focus on the amyloid hypothesis as the fundamental causal explanation behind the disease.

Professor John Nolan, who led the study, said that their previous work confirmed that carotenoids are found in the eye and that enrichment of these essential nutrients with nutritional supplements can improve visual function. It's the data that took us there. The plan he had made with colleagues was to identify possible new Alzheimer's drug targets by looking at the molecular changes in the brain that occur during the disease.

"When we celebrate this, because we are celebrating our caregivers, we are recognizing there is a need for research of Alzheimer's, and at the end of the day, we know we did a great thing by bringing awareness to the cause", said Sheila Hutcherson, President, Gamma Sigma Omega Chapter.

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