Most of the concern surrounding the Zika virus has centered around pregnant women and the birth defects that develop in babies who were infected in the womb. However, adult brain cells are not completely safe.
In rare cases, it was known that Zika was linked to Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis and death. People experiencing Guillain-Barré tend to recover about 6 to 8 weeks after symptoms, such as tingling and muscle weakness that spreads throughout the body, begin. Now, new research has found evidence that adult brain cells critical to learning and member may be at risk, as well.
“Based on our findings, getting infected with Zika as an adult may not be as innocuous as people think,” Joseph Gleeson, MD, adjunct professor at Rockefeller, head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Disease, Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and co-author of the study, said in a statement.
A study published in Cell Stem Cell found that mice infected with the Zika virus showed neural progenitor cells were susceptible to the virus. Most adult neurons are resistant to the virus, but some replenish and are vital for learning and memory. The researchers found that the virus may have the same ability to infect adult neural progenitor cells as it does regarding fetal neural progenitor cells.
The results of the research, conducted only in mice, are only a first step, though. More research is needed to find the effect on an adult brain and to see if the mice model translates to humans. The researchers are also looking to find if the damage to adult brain cells can result in long-term damage.
“Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and can wreak havoc,” Sujan Shresta, PhD, study co-author and a professor at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology, said in a statement. “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.”