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Olivia Ware - November 17, 2020

Does Herpes Lead To Alzheimer’s Disease?

Coming of age in America generally involves making a questionable choice or two. Ever suffer a memory lapse, or “black out,” following a night of drinking? Did you really take a drag off that stranger’s cigarette outside the bar at 1 am, and then take that same stranger home with you? 

When engaging in risky behavior, health consequences down the road may be closer and more threatening than they appear. Tobacco habits picked up in youth are now readily linked to  cancer diagnosis later in life—but other than common STIs, does having unprotected sex lead to anything more dangerous later in life? Well, the science is still working hard to determine the facts, but some studies suggest that there may be a link between herpes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Is There a Link Between Herpes and Alzheimer's?

A new lab study found that modeled brain tissue infected with HSV-1 (oral herpes) developed hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease: brain inflammation and amyloid (protein) deposits. Researchers have been probing a possible link between microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungi) and the cognitive-degenerative disorder for about thirty years, yet conclusive human studies have only been circumstantial, until now. 

Previously, amyloid plaques that form between neurons and tau tangles (twisted fibers inside neurons) have been the primary focus of Alzheimer’s research. However, these two key indicators of Alzheimer’s may not be the cause itself as initially thought, but rather a defense the brain develops after the introduction of disease. The new research redirects focus on the role of pathogens in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, years before disruptive symptoms arise. Microbial virals (like HSV-1) may get the ball rolling much earlier, leading to the eventual development of amyloid plaques and tau tangles that ultimately limit cognitive function. 

Our understanding of Alzheimer’s is murky and confusing, much like the impact of the disease. While the new study does not draw conclusive evidence linking HSV (herpes simplex virus) with the development of Alzheimer’s, it may prove helpful in the pursuit of Alzheimer’s treatment. If Alzheimer’s develops from a virus, then perhaps we can treat it like one. 

No new drugs have not been approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s since 2003. Worse than the seventeen-year gap in progress is the unsettling fact that the five available drugs on the market to treat Alzheimer’s only address its symptoms, not the underlying disease itself. Pursuing a link between HSV and Alzheimer’s has the potential to open up an entirely new course of treatment using antivirals. 

What causes Alzheimer's?

Putting aside the potential link between STDs and Alzheimers, what do we really know about Alzheimer’s disease? Alzheimer’s is a progressive neurological disorder affecting short-term memory and speech. The onset of Alzheimer’s disease typically occurs over the age of 60 and progresses to an eventual inability to perform day to day functions. 

Researchers believe that there is no single cause for Alzheimer’s—a range of intersecting genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors likely lay the foundation for the disease. While science has been able to determine how Alzheimer’s affects the brain (remember the amyloid and tau tangles), we don’t yet know why. Without concrete cause, both prevention and treatment of the disease largely remain a mystery. 

Can HSV Increase Your Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease?

We’re not sure. For those of us who have herpes, any potential link to Alzheimer’s may sound alarming, but there is no need to panic. The science of finding a direct link between HSV and Alzheimer’s disease just isn’t there yet. While it looks like viruses may play a role in the development of Alzheimer’s, the data comparing people diagnosed with herpes to those who develop Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t add up—an estimated two-thirds of the population under 50 are infected with HSV-1, while nowhere near that rate will develop Alzheimer’s. 

How Are Alzheimer’s Disease and the Herpes Virus Related?

The fact is, we don’t know the extent of the relationship between HSV (and other viruses) and Alzheimer’s disease. No direct causality has been established. New research linking HSV-1 to Alzheimer’s is not meant to incite fear in carriers of the herpes virus. Instead, it may open a door to new opportunities for Alzheimer’s treatment. If Alzheimer’s is a viral borne disease, it may be treated more effectively, and proactively, with antiviral medication. 

When valacyclovir—a common medication used for herpes treatment—was introduced to model brain tissue in the study published by Science Advances, it was shown to relieve brain inflammation and increase brain function. But more research needs to be done to observe the impact of antivirals on the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Though much about Alzheimer’s disease remains unknown, there is hope. Perhaps this early research on whether Alzheimer’s disease and the herpes virus are in some way linked will lead to a greater understanding of how either of these diseases works in the body. Knowledge is not to be feared. If anything, more information leads to better solutions.  

It is easy to push away future consequences in favor of momentary pleasure—why else would we ever endure a hangover? If the potential connection between herpes and Alzheimer's feels worrisome, don’t leap to self-diagnosis or bury your head in the sand. A better takeaway would be to consider potential long term effects of short term choices. Step 1: practice safe sex! We may never fully grasp how the brain functions, but it is worth remembering that the body doesn’t forget.

Many individuals infected with HSV-1 or HSV-2 will continue ignoring the occasional discomfort associated with outbreaks rather than go through the trouble of establishing a herpes treatment routine. But just as STDs can lead to infertility, letting viruses go untreated in the moment may prove more costly in the end. 

A new STD diagnosis tends to wreak havoc on your body, emotions and state of mind—but if actual brain function is added to the list of herpes side effects, we all better start taking safe sex a lot more seriously.