One of the key issues put forward by the attorneys for the families in the Omnibus Autism Proceeding was whether the measles virus could survive for years in children with autism without being eradicated by the body.
Recent research from the University of Manchester points to the continued persistence of viruses in the body where they may be responsible for the amyloid plaques which are the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. (“Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 DNA is Located within Alzheimer’s Disease Amyloid Plaques”, The Journal of Pathology, Volume 217, issue 1, pages 131-138) The research was also highlighted in an article in Science Daily. (“Cold Sore Virus Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease, December 7, 2008)
While the virus found in the study was herpes simplex 1, the virus responsible for cold sores, I was intrigued by this finding as my own daughter had especially high titers for herpes varicella-zoster, the virus which causes chicken-pox in children, or shingles in adults. Other researchers have suggested the involvement of the cytomegalovirus (another of the herpes virus family) in autism.
The research was so convincing that the lead sentence to the Science Daily article boldly stated, “The virus behind cold sores is a major cause of the insoluble protein plaques found in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers.”
During my review of testimony from the Omnibus Autism Proceeding I was struck by the lack of specific knowledge about so many aspects of viral pathology. Even the witnesses for the defense stated that the process by which viruses were “attenuated”, or “weakened” was akin to putting the viruses in a “black box” and then trying to figure out how they were different when they came out.
The connection between viral exposure and genetics that many believe underlies autism was also present in the findings relating to herpes simplex 1 and Alzheimer’s. From the Science Daily article, “The team had discovered that the virus is present in brains of many elderly people, and that in those people with a specific genetic factor, there is a high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.” The researchers noted that the virus is widespread in the general population, often remaining for life in the peripheral nervous system, causing cold sores for approximately 20-40% of those infected.
In fact, the regression which so many people link to vaccinations might be explained by a process similar to what Dr. Itzhaki, one of the paper authors, describes as their explanation for the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. “We suggest that HSV 1 (herpes simplex virus) enters the brain in the elderly as their immune systems decline and then establishes a dominant infection from which it is repeatedly activated by events such as stress, immunosuppression, and various infections.”
Another striking similarity is that the researchers have used acyclovir, an anti-viral drug used by many children with autism as a way to ameliorate some of the more severe features of autism, “in preliminary experiments they have shown that acyclovir reduces the amyloid deposition and reduces also certain other features of the disease.”
Could research involving Alzheimer’s give some clues about the possible connection between viruses, immune-suppression, and genetics? Will the pieces of this puzzle ever form a coherent picture?
The search for the cause of autism often reminds me of the tale of the six blind men who are asked to describe an elephant using only their sense of touch. One feels the leg and says the elephant is like a pillar. Another feels the tail and says the beast is like a rope. The third blind man feels the trunk and says it’s like a tree branch. The fourth feels the ear and says it’s like a hand fan. The next feels the belly and says it’s like a wall. The last feels the tusk and proclaims the elephant is definitely like a pipe.
Each one is correct, but they need to combine their observations to form an accurate picture. I imagine that to truly understand autism we’re all going to be presented with a similar challenge.
Kent Heckenlively is Legal Editor of Age of Autism
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