Exploring How Zika Virus Attacks Cells in Developing Brains
The mosquito-borne Zika virus arose as a medical threat in October 2015, when northeastern Brazil reported an abrupt increase in the number of babies born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly. Since then, scientists have been working rapidly to find out just how harmful the virus might be. In the past year, scientists have linked Zika infection to neurological symptoms seen in infants, showing that Zika virus targets a type of neural stem cell that gives rise to the brain’s cerebral cortex. Zika virus may also affect adults as it is also associated with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a nerve-damaging disorder that can cause temporary paralysis. Scientists continue to determine just how Zika virus damages the nervous system.
Today’s new findings show that:
- Patterns of gene activity in human neural stem cells show that Zika virus meddles with cellular machinery needed for cell division and alters the genetic program that guides cell differentiation (Patricia Garcez, abstract 495.25, see attached summary).
- Studies of mouse cells infected with Zika virus suggest the virus not only curbs production of proteins needed to grow new neurons, but also amps up production of proteins that spur development of non-neural brain cells called astrocytes (Olivia Lossia, abstract 28.02, see attached summary).
- Tiny 3-D “mini-brains” grown in the lab, with the aid of a 3-D printer, allow scientists to view the effects of Zika virus exposure and test for drugs that might offer protection (Xuyu Qian, abstract 495.14, see attached summary).
- Neural stem cells from different donors and grown in the lab show that some may be more vulnerable to Zika infection than others. Researchers are now sorting out the ways the virus affects different cells (Erica McGrath, abstract 573.06, see attached summary).
The research was supported by national funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, as well as other public, private, and philanthropic organizations worldwide. Find out more about Zika and the brain at BrainFacts.org.