Cognitive Impairment in Schizophrenia Linked to the Cold Sore Virus

According to a recent study reported in the May issue of Schizophrenia Research, scientists at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have discovered a connection between the virus that causes cold sores, herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1), and the cognitive problems often observed in schizophrenic individuals. The study involved 40 schizophrenic individuals and suggests that the virus may cause certain parts of the brain to shrink, resulting in problems with learning, coordination, memory, concentration and dexterity.

According to Dr. David J. Schretlen, one of the professors in the psychiatry department at Johns Hopkins, the cognitive difficulties that were believed to be specifically caused by the schizophrenia itself may in fact be partially due to past exposure to this virus. Often these symptoms of cognitive impairment appear long before the psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, which are the hallmark of this complex psychiatric illness.

Previous research has provided evidence that schizophrenic individuals who have the most significant cognitive problems often have antibodies to the HSV-1 virus. Those without the antibodies typically have less serious cognitive impairment. Those with the antibodies also often have less brain volume. Of the 40 participants, 25 had HSV-1 antibodies. Brain volume was measured using MRI scans of the brain. Areas of the brain that showed shrinkage were the cerebellum and the anterior cingulate. These two regions control motor function, and the ability to process information and switch tasks, respectively.

The participants took cognitive tests, and just as previous research had predicted, those with the antibodies received much lower scores.

The study may open the door to new treatment approaches for schizophrenia, as well as ways to prevent or reduce the cognitive symptoms. New treatment approaches may include the use of antiviral medications.

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