Forgetful? Virus may be eating your brain Reuters Tuesday, 24 October 2006 Viruses may be able to cross into the brain, causing steady damage over the years (Image: iStockphoto) Forget where you left your glasses? Did those keys go missing again? A virus may be to blame. Viruses that cause a range of ills from the common cold to polio may be able to infect the brain and cause steady damage, a team at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota reports. "Our study suggests that virus-induced memory loss could accumulate over the lifetime of an individual and eventually lead to clinical cognitive memory deficits," says Dr Charles Howe, who reports the findings in the latest issue of the journal Neurobiology of Disease. The viruses are called picornaviruses and infect more than 1 billion people worldwide each year. They include the virus that causes polio, as well as colds and diarrhoea. People contract an average of two or three such infections a year. "We think picornavirus family members cross into the brain and cause a variety of brain injuries. For example, the polio virus can cause paralysis," Howe says. "It can injure the spinal cord and different parts of the brain responsible for motor function. In the [mouse] virus we studied, it did the same thing and also injured parts of the brain responsible for memory." The researchers infected mice with a virus called Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus, which is similar to human poliovirus. Infected mice later had difficulty learning to navigate a maze. Some were barely affected, while others were completely unable to manage. When the mice were killed and their brains examined, a correlating amount of damage was seen in the hippocampus region, related to learning and memory. One virus particularly likely to cause brain damage is enterovirus 71, which is common in Asia, the researchers say. It can cross over into the brain and cause encephalitis, a brain inflammation that can lead to coma and death. "Our findings suggest that picornavirus infections throughout the lifetime of an individual may chip away at the cognitive reserve, increasing the likelihood of detectable cognitive impairment as the individual ages," the researchers write. "We hypothesise that mild memory and cognitive impairments of unknown aetiology may, in fact, be due to accumulative loss of hippocampus function caused by repeated infection with common and widespread neurovirulent picornaviruses." Other viruses kill brain cells, including the herpes virus and HIV.