Cold sores may be more serious than popular opinion believes, according to recent studies that link them to a disease that attacks cognitive and memory functions of the brain. Recent studies suggest that the variant of the herpes simplex virus is a major cause of the insoluble protein plaques that are often found in the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s disease.
According to research by the University of Manchester and others, the version of herpes that causes cold sores may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe that treatment of the virus with aciclovir may help impede it from contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Herpes is a viral disease that mainly affects the genitals or the oral area. There are two variants of the herpes simplex virus, HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-2 is most commonly associated with genital herpes, though it can cause oral herpes. HSV-1 is most commonly associated with oral herpes, or cold sores as its commonly called, although it can also cause genital herpes. HSV-1 is the variant of herpes that researchers believe is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder of the brain named for noted German doctor Alois Alzheimer. The disease is estimated to affect nearly six million Americans and is the seventh-leading cause of death in the United States. Alzheimer’s disease attacks brain cells causing eventual loss of cognitive and memory function among other impairments such as changes in behavior. The disease progressively attacks the brain and eventually can be fatal.
It is believed that Alzheimer’s attacks the brain by means of developments called plaques and tangles. Plaques develop in between the nerve cells of the brain and contain proteins known as beta-amyloids. Tangles form inside dying brain cells and are essentially twisted fibers of a protein known as tau. The formation of plaques and tangles in the brain occurs normally over time, but in Alzheimer’s patients the formation of plaques and tangles are more pronounced. Plaques and tangles generally start forming in the areas of the brain devoted to learning and memory and then later spread to other parts of the brain.
Most people catch HSV-1 at some point in their lives. This infection is usually less severe than HSV-2 and causes occasional breakouts of cold sores in and around the mouth. HSV-1 can occasionally cause serious complications such as meningitis and encephalitis.
With regard to Alzheimer’s disease, HSV-1 DNA has been found to reside in the amyloid plaques that affect Alzheimer’s sufferers. According to research, about 90 percent of the plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers carry some HSV-1 DNA. This finding would suggest that HSV-1 has a major impact in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
According to researchers, the HSV-1 virus enters the brains of older adults as their immune systems begin to decline. Once gaining entry, the HSV-1 virus establishes a dormant infection which stress and other infections can recurrently activate. The HSV-1 flare ups in the brain causes damage to brain cells, which die and release amyloid proteins which eventually develop into plaques.
Researchers believe that antiviral agents commonly used in the treatment of HSV-1 can help mitigate the virus’ contribution to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. One particular antiviral agent that researchers believe will help in this process is aciclovir.
Aciclovir and testing for HSV-1
Aciclovir is an antiviral treatment commonly used in the treatment of herpes. Introduced in the early 1980s, aciclovir was the first antiviral drug to be used in the treatment of herpes. Aciclovir reduces HSV-1 and HSV-2 outbreaks by slowing down the disease’s replication in the body. It’s used as both a suppressive and topical treatment for herpes. Researchers believe that this will help slow or inhibit the HSV-1 virus from infecting the brain of older patients, thus reducing the creation of plaques in the brains of older patients, thus removing a contributing factor to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Because aciclovir is now available in generic form, it’s an accessible and affordable treatment option.
The key to beginning aciclovir treatment for HSV-1 is detecting the disease. Because HSV-1 symptoms tend to be much milder than those of HSV-2, many people with this form of herpes are unaware that they are infected.
HSV-1 can be detected by both blood and viral tests. If you have a sore in your mouth, there’s a good chance that you might have HSV-1, so its advisable to get tested. The tests are relatively painless and turnaround is fairly quick.