Bell's Palsy and Herpes Simplex Virus: Fact or Mystery?

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Hypothesis and BackgroundIn recent years, progress has been made in the understanding of Bell's palsy, the most common form of acute facial weakness. Herpes simplex virus (HSV) reactivation within the geniculate ganglion with subsequent inflammation and entrapment of the nerve at the meatal foramen has been proposed to be the pathogenetic mechanism. We challenged its accuracy by analyzing our own data on the presence of viral genomic DNA of HSV-1 and 2, human herpes virus (HHV)-6A/B, as well as varizella zoster virus (VZV) in patients with Bell's palsy and in control patients without the disease.MethodsPolymerase chain reaction was performed with primer sets specific for viral genomic DNA of HSV-1, HSV-2, and VZV in facial muscle biopsy specimens from patients with Bell's palsy. As control specimens, the Scarpa's ganglion of patients with Menière's disease and the geniculate ganglion harvested at autopsy from patients without history of facial palsy. In a second study, we used polymerase chain reaction with primers specific for HSV-1, -2, and HHV-6A, -6B to analyze for the presence of these viruses in tear fluid samples from control patients and patients with acute Bell's palsy.ResultsHSV-1 and VZV genomic DNA were detected in 86 and 43%, respectively, of geniculate ganglion preparations from control specimen. We were not able to detect the presence of HSV-1, HSV-2, or VZV genomic DNA in ganglion scarpae or muscle biopsy results in control and Bell's palsy patients. HHV-6A could be detected in tear fluid samples in 40% of control patients and 30% of Bell's palsy patients.ConclusionsThe sole presence of HSV genomic DNA within the sensory ganglion along the facial nerve does not explain the direct association with Bell's palsy. The missing link would be the identification of an active replicating virus, an investigation that has not yet been carried out.

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