More than half of the survivors of West Nile virus brain infections are left with memory disorders that make everyday tasks such as remembering the route from home to work challenging. Similar issues can arise in the aftermath of other viral infections, such as the “brain fog” that plagues some people after a diagnosis of COVID-19. These memory problems can persist for months or years — in some cases even worsening over time — and doctors have no good way to prevent or treat them.
Robyn S. Klein, MD, PhD, the Robert E. and Louise F. Dunn Distinguished Professor of Medical Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, has received an $8.7 million grant to study how viruses may cause diseases of “pathological forgetting.” The grant, from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is a research program award designed to provide stable, long-term funding so an investigator can tackle thorny scientific problems. Klein plans to use the funding to investigate why emerging viral infections sometimes trigger memory problems that persist long after a virus has been cleared from the body.
“Forgetfulness is normal,” said Klein, who directs the Center for Neuroimmunology & Neuroinfectious Diseases at the School of Medicine. “You can’t remember everything. You don’t want to. Excessive remembering can interfere with forming new short-term memories. There’s a normal process of removing and refining connections between neurons to allow for normal forgetting and, after some viral infections, this process somehow gets revved up and creates pathological forgetting.”