Brain research is evolving towards many different fields and disciplines converging, and to a broader view of how what is happening outside of the brain must be part of understanding brain health.
We now understand that brain health is not just the result of “good genes”—it is a far more complex interplay of genes and external factors—lifestyle, trauma, and the environment, including viruses and other infectious agents, which may invade or trigger responses in other parts of the human system. The brain is integrated with the rest of the body, and the environment plays a role in the development of disease mechanisms. Infectious agents, such as a virus, can invade our system and lead to cascading events.
VINEx's mission includes understanding how virus and other infectious agents act as potential triggers for neurodegenerative diseases (such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's), and psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders.
There is evidence of infectious agents causing prolonged complications with long recoveries, and even triggering chronic illnesses. Epidemiologists have shown that an elevated risk of Parkinson's has accompanied several viral outbreaks throughout history from the Spanish flu to HIV, West Nile, and Japanese encephalitis. There has also been increased interest in researching whether viruses can contribute to the development of Alzheimer's disease. During the current pandemic, we are observing how SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for COVID-19) can result in Long COVID (the phenomenon where COVID-19 survivors experience symptoms that persist weeks and months after infection), which has over 200 reported symptoms).
Furthermore, there is compelling evidence that viral infections could be contributors to brain disorders. For example, it is estimated that less than one percent of Alzheimer's cases have a direct genetic cause. A combination of genes, lifestyle and the environment all are thought to play a role, and there is ongoing research into whether viruses can trigger Alzheimer's. Getting a better understanding of Alzheimer's is difficult without better understanding the interplay between brain health and the environment.
A recent study provides the strongest evidence to-date of how viruses may be contributing factors to neurological disease, demonstrating that Epstein-Barr virus may be a leading cause of multiple sclerosis. The robust study reviewed serum samples from millions of US military recruits over a 20-year time period. The study noted that the risk of multiple sclerosis increased 32-fold after infection with Epstein-Barr virus, and was able to demonstrate that the development of multiple sclerosis was not increased after infection with other viruses.
The virus-brain link is present. Nevertheless, more work must be done. There is a need to better understand the impact of viruses on brain health, and as potential contributors to brain diseases.