Human herpesvirus-6 (HHV-6) is a β-herpesvirus with 90% seroprevalence that infects and establishes latency in the central nervous system. Two HHV-6 variants are known: HHV-6A and HHV-6B. Active infection or reactivation of HHV-6 in the brain is associated with neurological disorders, including epilepsy, encephalitis, and multiple sclerosis. In a preliminary study, we found HHV-6B DNA in resected brain tissue from patients with mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE) and have localized viral antigen to glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP)–positive glia in the same brain sections. We sought, first, to determine the extent of HHV-6 infection in brain material resected from MTLE and non-MTLE patients; and second, to establish in vitro primary astrocyte cultures from freshly resected brain material and determine expression of glutamate transporters.
Methods and Findings
HHV-6B infection in astrocytes and brain specimens was investigated in resected brain material from MTLE and non-MTLE patients using PCR and immunofluorescence. HHV-6B viral DNA was detected by TaqMan PCR in brain resections from 11 of 16 (69%) additional patients with MTLE and from zero of seven (0%) additional patients without MTLE. All brain regions that tested positive by HHV-6B variant-specific TaqMan PCR were positive for viral DNA by nested PCR. Primary astrocytes were isolated and cultured from seven epilepsy brain resections and astrocyte purity was defined by GFAP reactivity. HHV-6 gp116/54/64 antigen was detected in primary cultured GFAP-positive astrocytes from resected tissue that was HHV-6 DNA positive—the first demonstration of an ex vivo HHV-6–infected astrocyte culture isolated from HHV-6–positive brain material. Previous work has shown that MTLE is related to glutamate transporter dysfunction. We infected astrocyte cultures in vitro with HHV-6 and found a marked decrease in glutamate transporter EAAT-2 expression.
Overall, we have now detected HHV-6B in 15 of 24 patients with mesial temporal sclerosis/MTLE, in contrast to zero of 14 with other syndromes. Our results suggest a potential etiology and pathogenic mechanism for MTLE.
Steve Jacobson and colleagues report finding human herpesvirus-6B DNA in brain resections from 11 of 16 patients with mesial temporal lobe epilepsy, strengthening the evidence for a role for this virus in this condition.
Epilepsy is a common brain disorder caused by a sudden, excessive electrical discharge in a cluster of neurons—the cells that transmit electrical messages between the body and the brain. Its symptoms depend on which part of the brain is affected by this electrical firestorm and how far the disturbance spreads. When only part of the brain is affected (a partial seizure or fit), patients may see or smell strange things, recall forgotten memories, or have part of their body jerk uncontrollably. When the electrical disturbance spreads across the whole brain (a generalized seizure), there may be loss of consciousness and/or the whole body may become rigid or jerk. Epilepsy is usually controlled with anti-epileptic drugs or, in very severe focal cases, surgery to the area of the brain where the seizure starts. Although head injuries or brain tumors can trigger epilepsy, the cause of most cases of epilepsy is unknown.
Why Was This Study Done?
Knowing what causes epilepsy might lead to better treatments for it. One possibility is that infections trigger epilepsy. The researchers in this study asked whether infections with human herpesvirus 6B (HHV-6B) are associated with a common type of epilepsy called mesial temporal lobe epilepsy (MTLE). Patients with MTLE often have extensive scarring in the hippocampus, a brain region responsible for memory that lies deep within a bigger region called the temporal lobe. Hippocampal scarring and MTLE are associated with a history of fever-induced fits, and HHV-6B infection can cause such fits in young children. Most people become infected with HHV-6B (or the closely related HHV-6A) early in life. The virus then remains latent for years within the brain and elsewhere. Given these facts and a previous investigation that showed that brain tissue from several patients with MTLE contained HHV-6B, the researchers reasoned that it was worth investigating HHV-6B as a cause of MTLE.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers first looked for HHV-6B DNA in brain tissue surgically removed from patients with MTLE or another type of epilepsy. Tissue from 11 of 16 patients with MTLE (but from 0 of 7 control patients) contained HHV-6B DNA. When the researchers grew astrocytes (a type of brain cell) from some of these samples, only those from HHV-6B DNA-positive samples from patients with MTLE expressed an HHV-6-specific protein. Next, the researchers investigated in detail a patient with MTLE who had four sequential operations to control his epilepsy. This patient's hippocampus, which was removed in his first operation, contained a higher level of HHV-6B DNA than the tissues removed in later operations. After the fourth operation (which removed half of his brain and cured his epilepsy), astrocytes grown from the temporal lobe and the frontal/parietal lobe (a brain region next to the temporal lobe) but not the frontal and occipital lobes contained HHV-6B DNA and expressed a viral protein. The researchers also measured the production by these various astrocytes of a substance that moves glutamate (an amino acid that also acts as a neurotransmitter) across cell membranes—MTLE has been associated with a glutamate transporter deficiency. Consistent with this, astrocytes from the patient's temporal lobe made no glutamate transporter mRNA (mRNA is an essential precursor for protein to be produced). Finally, infection of astrocytes isolated from a patient without MTLE with HHV-6B greatly reduced expression of glutamate transporter in these astrocytes.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings, together with those from the previous study, reveal that nearly two-thirds of patients with MTLE (but no patients with other forms of epilepsy) have an active HHV-6B infection in the brain region where their epilepsy originates. Overall, they provide strong support for the idea that HHV-6B infections might cause MTLE, particularly given the results obtained from the patient whose condition only improved after multiple brain operations had removed all the virally infected material. Furthermore, the demonstration that HHV-6B infection reduces glutamate transporter expression in astrocytes suggests that HHV-6B infection might cause astrocyte dysfunction. This dysfunction could lead to injury of the sensitive neurons in the hippocampus and trigger MTLE. Additional patients now need to be studied both to confirm the association between HHV-6B infection and MTLE and to discover exactly how this virus triggers epilepsy.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040180.
MedlinePlus encyclopedia page on epilepsy (in English and Spanish)
World Health Organization fact sheet on epilepsy (in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Chinese)
US National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke epilepsy information page (in English and Spanish)
UK National Health Service Direct information for patients on epilepsy (in several languages)
Neuroscience for kids, an educational Web site prepared by Eric Chudler (University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States), who also has a site that includes information on epilepsy and a list of links to epilepsy organizations (mainly in English but some sections in other languages as well)
A short scientific article on human herpes virus 6 in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases