WASHINGTON.- Viruses that sneak into the brain just might play a role in Alzheimer’s, scientists reported Thursday in a provocative study that promises to re-ignite some long-debated theories about what triggers the mindrobbing disease.
The findings don’t prove viruses cause Alzheimer’s, nor do they suggest it’s contagious. But a team led by researchers at New York’s Mount Sinai Health System found that certain viruses — including two extremely common herpes viruses — affect the behavior of genes involved in Alzheimer’s.
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The idea that infections earlier in life might somehow set the stage for Alzheimer’s decades later has simmered at the edge of mainstream medicine for years. It’s been overshadowed by the prevailing theory that Alzheimer’s stems from sticky plaques that clog the brain.
Thursday’s study has even some specialists who never embraced the infection connection saying it’s time for a closer look, especially as attempts to block those so-called beta-amyloid plaques have failed.
“With an illness this terrible, we cannot afford to dismiss all scientific possibilities,” said Dr. John Morris, who directs the Alzheimer’s research center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.
He wasn’t involved in the new research but called it impressive. The study also fits with mounting evidence that how aggressively the brain’s immune system defends itself against viruses or other germs may be riskier than an actual infection, said Alzheimer’s specialist Dr. Rudolph Tanzi of Massachusetts General Hospital.