Study Finds Zika Virus May Also Impact Adult Brain Cells

Posted on August 18, 2016

Flourescent biomarker showing Zika infecting brain cells in adult mice

There is great concern over the Zika virus because of it can cause brain damage in developing babies during pregnancy, including microcephaly. Scientists at The Rockefeller University and La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology have conducted new research that suggests the virus may also infect adult brain cells. The image above shows illumination of the fluorescent biomarker in green revealing that Zika can infect the adult mouse brain in a region full of neural progenitor cells.

The researchers studied mice and found that Zika can infect adult neural progenitor cells. These cells play an important role in learning and memory. In a mouse model engineered by the researchers to mimic Zika infection in humans, fluorescent biomarkers illuminated to reveal that adult neural progenitor cells could indeed be hijacked by the virus.

Joseph Gleeson, adjunct professor at Rockefeller, head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Disease, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, says in the announcement, "This is the first study looking at the effect of Zika infection on the adult brain. Based on our findings, getting infected with Zika as an adult may not be as innocuous as people think."

Sujan Shresta, a professor at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology, adds, "Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and can wreak havoc. But it's a complex disease-it's catastrophic for early brain development, yet the majority of adults who are infected with Zika rarely show detectable symptoms. Its effect on the adult brain may be more subtle, and now we know what to look for."

Gleeson also says, "In more subtle cases, the virus could theoretically impact long-term memory or risk of depression, but tools do not exist to test the long-term effects of Zika on adult stem cell populations."

There have been some cases in adults of Zika being linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome. The CDC says on its site that most adults infected with the Zika virus have no symptoms or mild symptoms such as fever, rash, joint pain, muscle pain, headache and conjunctivitis. If there are any memory complications in people infected with Zika virus they have been too subtle to be noticed or be linked directly to Zika. Gleeson thinks the public health enterprise should consider "monitoring for Zika infections in all groups, not just pregnant women" as a precaution based on the findings of the study.

A research paper on the study was published here in the journal, Cell Stem Cell.

Image: Rockefeller University

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