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Flu May Boost Alzheimer's Risk, Research Suggests
When we come down with the flu, we might think the worst is over after a week of a sore throat and body aches. But such viral infections may have lasting, unseen effects on the brain, emerging research suggests.
Viruses such as influenza and herpes may leave brain cells vulnerable to degeneration later in life, and increase the risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, research suggests. That's because these the viruses can enter the brain and trigger an immune response — inflammation — which can damage brain cells.
Viruses and other sources of inflammation "may be initiating factors in some of the most common neurological diseases," said Dr. Ole Isacson, professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, who discussed the topic in an article published today (Feb. 15) in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
One of the earliest pieces of evidence for the virus-brain disease link comes from the 1918 influenza pandemic, according to Isacson's article. After that outbreak, there was a dramatic increase in cases of a disease called postencephalitic parkinsonism, which has many of the same symptoms as Parkinson's.
...Research has also shown that infection with certain herpes viruses can increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease. And very rarely, encephalitis, or brain inflammation caused by viruses, can lead directly to an acute, but transient, form of Parkinson's disease.
But more often, viral infections in our brain are silent, Isacson said. We don't see the full impact of these infections until brain degeneration is substantial, he said.