Common infections may increase risk for memory decline

American Stroke Association Meeting Report: Abstract: 107 (Room Ballroom 20D)

Study highlights:

  • Exposure to common infections is linked to problems with memory and cognitive skills.
  • The cognitive decline may be evident even when the infection is not.

Embargoed until 7:12 a.m. PT/10:12 a.m. ET Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014

SAN DIEGO, Feb. 13, 2014 – Exposure to common infections is linked to memory and brain function — even if the infections never made you ill, according to research presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2014.

Researchers found an index of antibody levels caused by exposure to Chlamydia pneumoniae, Helicobacter pylori, cytomegalovirus, and herpes simplex viruses 1 and 2 was associated with worse cognitive performance, including memory, speed of mental processing, abstract thinking, planning and reasoning ability.

“We were very interested in what were the risk factors for cognitive performance and decline,” said Clinton Wright, M.D., M.S., the study’s lead researcher and scientific director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Miami.

Earlier studies have already linked certain infections to an increased risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.  Researchers investigated if evidence of past exposure to these infections contributed to performance on tests of memory, thinking speed and other brain functions.

The study conducted brain function tests and took blood samples from 588 people who participated in the Northern Manhattan Study. Half of the participants then took cognitive tests again in five years.

Researchers believe exposure to these infections may be associated with an increase in stroke risk, as well as an increase in atherosclerosis and inflammation, said Dr. Wright, who is also chief of the division of cognitive disorders and associate professor of neurology, neuroscience, and epidemiology and public health at the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami.

The study doesn’t explain why the infections are related to worsening cognitive function. “It could be caused by an immune system response to the infections or the infection itself could result in clinical damage that we’re not aware of,” Wright said.

Wright, who conducted the study in collaboration with researchers at Columbia University, isn’t suggesting that people take any action to combat these infections. “There is no evidence yet that treating these infections is beneficial,” he said, because the initial exposure to the viruses may have happened decades earlier and the damage may be the result of a gradual process. “It would be great if treatment prevented these bad outcomes, but we’re very far away from having that type of evidence.” Further studies will need to be conducted to see if the findings are duplicated in other populations, he said, since most of the participants in the study — 70 percent — were Hispanic.

Co-authors are Hannah Gardener, Sc.D.; Chaunhui Dong, Ph.D.; Chensy Marquez, M.D.; Janet T. DeRosa, M.P.H.; K. Cheung, Ph.D.; Ralph L. Sacco, M.D., M.S.; Yaakov Stern, Ph.D.; and Mitchell S. Elkind, M.D., M.S.

Author disclosures are on the abstract.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Statements and conclusions of study authors that are presented at American Stroke Association scientific meetings are solely those of the study authors and do not necessarily reflect association policy or position.  The association makes no representation or warranty as to their accuracy or reliability. The association receives funding primarily from individuals; foundations and corporations (including pharmaceutical, device manufacturers and other companies) also make donations and fund specific association programs and events.  The association has strict policies to prevent these relationships from influencing the science content.  Revenues from pharmaceutical and device corporations are available at www.heart.org/corporatefunding.

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