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Posted: December 16, 2008

Watch Those Cold Sores: They May Be Linked to Alzheimer's Risk

British scientists say there’s increasing evidence that developing cold sores can put you at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease – and that cheap cold sore medications might one day help fight off the deadly form of dementia.

That’s because the herpes virus behind cold sores has been identified by researchers as a major cause of the protein plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer's, according to findings published in the Journal of Pathology.


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But in a twist, the researchers from the University of Manchester believe the findings may provide an opportunity to determine whether antiviral drug used to treat cold sores, such as the inexpensive treatment acyclovir, might also have a role in helping the medical community prevent Alzheimer’s down the road.


The study team, headed by Professor Ruth Itzhaki of the Faculty of Life Sciences at Manchester, said they had discovered DNA evidence of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) type 1 in 90% of plaques in Alzheimer's disease patients' brains.


The team had previously shown that HSV1 infection of nerve-type cells in mice leads to evidence of the main component of the plaques: beta amyloid. Correspondingly, they feel that because the infection is present in the brains of many elderly people and for those people with a specific genetic factor, there is a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.


Boldly, the British researchers say the cold sore-Alzheimer’s connection may actually get at a root cause of the fatal disease.


"We suggest that HSV1 enters the brain in the elderly as their immune systems decline and then establishes a dormant infection from which it is repeatedly activated by events such as stress, immunosuppression, and various infections," said Itzhaki.


She added: "The ensuing active HSV1 infection causes severe damage in brain cells, most of which die and then disintegrate, thereby releasing amyloid aggregates which develop into amyloid plaques after other components of dying cells are deposited on them."


The Manchester researchers next plan to test whether antiviral drugs used to treat cold sores, which block the action of HSV1, might stop cell damage that leads to Alzheimer's. If so, they’ll also look into the possibility of a vaccination against the virus to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s in the first place.

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