Neurologic complications associated with viral encephalitis, including seizures and cognitive impairment, are a global health issue, especially in children. We previously showed that hippocampal injury during acute picornavirus infection in mice is associated with calpain activation and is the result of neuronal death triggered by brain-infiltrating inflammatory monocytes. We therefore hypothesized that treatment with a calpain inhibitor would protect neurons from immune-mediated bystander injury. C57BL/6J mice infected with the Daniel's strain of Theiler's murine encephalomyelitis virus were treated with the FDA-Approved drug ritonavir using a dosing regimen that resulted in plasma concentrations within the therapeutic range for calpain inhibition. Ritonavir treatment significantly reduced calpain activity in the hippocampus, protected hippocampal neurons from death, preserved cognitive performance, and suppressed seizure escalation, even when therapy was initiated 36 hours after disease onset. Calpain inhibition by ritonavir may be a powerful tool for preserving neurons and cognitive function and preventing neural circuit dysregulation in humans with neuroinflammatory disorders.
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