There are many competing theories about what causes Alzheimer’s disease. For more than 30 years, Ruth Itzhaki has been accumulating evidence that viruses are involved in its development in the brain.
We investigate this evidence in the third episode of Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia, a new podcast series available via The Anthill podcast.
Itzhaki, a neurobiologist at the University of Manchester, believes the common cold sore virus (herpes simplex 1 or HSV1) could be playing a vital role in Alzheimer’s. But she has faced years of hostility from many within the scientific community who didn’t take the theory seriously.
Reflecting on a career dedicated to one of the more controversial lines of research, she told us:
There are just so many people who have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, and of course it’s going to get worse as people live longer … This is another reason why I feel so angry that people are not willing to look, not just at our work but at other outside views which could hold the key – or one of the keys. They should be much more open-minded.
Now, though, it seems the tide of opinion is at last turning in Itzhaki’s favour. More researchers have begun developing the research she pioneered, with an anti-viral trial for Alzheimer’s – the first ever – now taking place at Columbia University Medical Center in the US. The leader of that trial, D.P. Devanand told us:
I think what happens is a particular idea or theory gains momentum so everybody follows that … [and] loses track of the fact that there may be other things that you need to consider. And to some extent that did happen in the field of Alzheimer’s, but at least now I think it’s a much broader approach.
Listen to the full episode to hear more about the role that viruses may play in Alzheimer’s, from some of the scientists at the forefront of this research. You can also read an article that Ruth Itzhaki wrote about her research as part of The Conversation’s Insights project.
Uncharted Brain: Decoding Dementia is hosted by Paul Keaveny, investigations editor at The Conversation in the UK, and Gemma Ware, co-host of The Conversation Weekly podcast. The series is produced and written by Tiffany Cassidy, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. The executive producer is Gemma Ware.
All episodes of the series are available on The Anthill podcast channel.
Dana Cairns does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment. D. P. Devanand has received research grants from the National Institute on Aging and Alzheimer’s Association that are funding his clinical trials on valacyclovir treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment, respectively.
Ruth Itzhaki is currently working with Dr David Kaplan and Dr Dana Cairns at Tufts University on the effects of infection on their 3D brain model. Also with Professors Ken Muir and Curtis Dobson and Dr Artitaya Lophatananon at Manchester University on epidemiological aspects of HSV1 and Alzheimer’s.