Herpes is creepier than we ever thought. Herpes viruses are very common and quite diverse. If you ever had cold sores, chickenpox or mono, then you’ve had a herpes virus. They can also infect your brain in what is commonly called a herpes encephalitis infection.
In fact, we know of 8 different types of herpes viruses that infect humans. And if you’ve had one, that infection lasts a lifetime. That’s because a herpes virus goes into what’s called a “latent phase” which is like a state of hibernation where the virus hides in your cells. And what’s really interesting is where these viruses are hiding.
The Virus Hides inside The Body’s Neurons
Believe it or not, the ones that cause cold sores, genital sores and chicken pox actually hide in neurons around your body. And this can have some pretty weird implications. For example if you’ve had chickenpox as a kid, the virus might flare up later in life as the disease shingles. Shingles causes a painful rash which appears on particular locations on your skin, depending on which nerve the virus was hiding in.
A friend of mine once got shingles on her right but-cheek, because the virus flared up to the nerve connected to that patch of skin. It was apparently very uncomfortable. Because herpes hides in your nervous system, it can sometimes make its way to your brain. This happens in about only two in a million people.
The same Virus that Causes Cold Sores Can Run into the Temporal Lobes
Around these very rare occasions, the same virus that causes cold sores can sneak into the temporal lobes and cause a host of unpleasant effects, including death. But some people who survive are left with a very strange type of brain damage. They’re totally normal except they lost the ability to recognize whole classes of things like animals, or colors, or tools.
One survivor can no longer identify whether a drawing depicted an animal or a fictional hybrid beast. And while I wouldn’t wish brain herpes on anyone, because of its specificity, this type of brain damage has actually revealed secrets about how our brain store and categorize information.
Anyway, scientists are learning more about these viruses all the time. In the past few years, they’ve begun to understand how to lower herpes out of the nervous system. And hopefully one day, we’ll be able to stop all eight types of herpes in their tracks.