A new study developed at the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus links the virus that causes chicken pox and shingles to a condition that inflames blood vessels on the temples and scalp in the elderly, called giant cell arteritis.
Giant cell arteritis, which can cause blindness or stroke and can be life-threatening, is linked in the study to the varicella zoster virus, of the herpes virus family, which causes chicken pox and may reactivate later in life in the form of shingles, a very painful rash.
"Our analysis, which is the largest to-date, provides compelling evidence that the virus also reactivates in people over 60 in another way, triggering giant cell arteritis," said lead author Don Gilden, MD, professor of neurology and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
Gilden's study is published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.
Giant cell arteritis causes swelling and tenderness of the arteries on the scalp and temples of people over the age of 50. Gilden noted that it is the most common type of inflammation of blood vessels in the elderly, affecting an estimated 29 out of 100,000 people. Symptoms include a new severe headache, scalp tenderness, jaw discomfort, blurred vision, fever, weight loss and tiredness.
For the study, researchers searched for evidence of the virus in 13 temporal artery biopsies of people who died and had no previous symptoms of giant cell arteritis and in 84 temporal artery biopsies of people with giant cell arteritis. All of the biopsies were from people over the age of 50.
The virus was found in 74 percent of the biopsies with giant cell arteritis and in only 8 percent of the normal skin biopsies.
"If the association in this landmark study can be replicated in other studies, clinical trials should focus on treating people with giant cell arteritis with a combination of the current steroid drugs used for the condition, plus antiviral treatment for the virus," said Peter Kennedy, CBE, MD, PhD, DSc, with the Glasgow University in Scotland, in a corresponding editorial.
University of Colorado Denver