Can Neonatal Herpes Lead to Alzheimer’s Disease?

MD-PhD student Abby Dutton. Photo by Eli Burakian D'00

“We’ve learned a lot during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic … how a virus can affect our behavior,” MD and PhD candidate Abigail Dutton says in this short video that recently won second place in the 2021 Ivy+ Three-minute Thesis Competition. “But recent evidence suggests that other viruses may be capable of causing permanent changes to host behavior in the absence of social pressures.”

In a lab at the Geisel School of Medicine directed by David Leib, professor of microbiology and immunology, Dutton, while taking precautions against COVID-19, is studying one of those “other viruses”—herpes simplex.

“It is likely that over two-thirds of us are infected with HSV right now,” Dutton warns. “It has the potential to survive, latent, within our nervous system for decades, traveling not only to the skin, but to the brain.” Dutton has been testing a troubling hypothesis that herpes, in mice, can impair memory and learning in ways that resemble the toll taken on humans by Alzheimer’s disease.

In one of her experiments, a herpes-infected mouse on day one shares a box with two identical objects for 10 minutes. On day two, one of those objects is replaced with something different. A typically curious mouse, Dutton hypothesized, would be more interested by the new object than the old one.

“Exactly the opposite happened,” she says. “The infected mouse did not show a preference for the new object, suggesting a deficit in its ability to learn and remember ‘novel’ versus ‘familiar.’”

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