Zika, the mosquito-borne virus that spread from West Africa to Latin America and the Western Pacific and resident in Florida, not only causes shrunken skulls and damaged brain in infants born to infected mothers. It may also cause depression and Alzheimer’s-like memory loss in adults.
That’s the disturbing finding of new research on the impact of the virus on the human brain.
From the Rockefeller University:
Concerns over the Zika virus have focused on pregnant women due to mounting evidence that it causes brain abnormalities in developing fetuses. However, new research in mice from scientists at The Rockefeller University and La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology suggests that certain adult brain cells may be vulnerable to infection as well. Among these are populations of cells that serve to replace lost or damaged neurons throughout adulthood, and are also thought to be critical to learning and memory.
“This is the first study looking at the effect of Zika infection on the adult brain,” says Joseph Gleeson, adjunct professor at Rockefeller, head of the Laboratory of Pediatric Brain Disease, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. “Based on our findings, getting infected with Zika as an adult may not be as innocuous as people think.”
Although more research is needed to determine if this damage has long-term biological implications or the potential to affect behavior, the findings suggest the possibility that the Zika virus, which has become widespread in Central and South America over the past eight months, may be more harmful than previously believed. The new findings were published in Cell Stem Cell[open access] on August 18.
“Zika can clearly enter the brain of adults and can wreak havoc,” says Sujan Shresta, a professor at the La Jolla Institute of Allergy and Immunology. “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.”
Early in gestation, before our brains have developed into a complex organ with specialized zones, they are comprised entirely of neural progenitor cells. With the capability to replenish the brain’s neurons throughout its lifetime, these are the stem cells of the brain. In healthy individuals, neural progenitor cells eventually become fully formed neurons, and it is thought that at some point along this progression they become resistant to Zika, explaining why adults appear less susceptible to the disease.
But current evidence suggests that Zika targets neural progenitor cells, leading to loss of these cells and to reduced brain volume. This closely mirrors what is seen in microcephaly, a developmental condition linked to Zika infection in developing fetuses that results in a smaller-than-normal head and a wide variety of developmental disabilities.
The mature brain retains niches of these neural progenitor cells that appear to be especially impacted by Zika. These niches—in mice they exist primarily in two regions, the subventricular zone of the anterior forebrain and the subgranular zone of the hippocampus—are vital for learning and memory.
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