NEWS BRIEF Zika is understood to pose the greatest threat to pregnant women and their fetuses, which can be born with severe brain defects if infected with the mosquito-borne virus. But new research suggests Zika may damage adult brains, too, giving scientists another thread to follow in their attempts to understand the virus as the number of infections continues to rise in South America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere.
U.S. researchers have found evidence that a certain kind of brain cell present in newborns that remains in some amounts in adulthood can be susceptible to Zika infection, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Cell Stem Cell. The cells, known as neural progenitor cells, are the stem cells of the brain; in newborns, they specialize into the different types of cells that build a complex brain, and in adults, they help replace and replenish damaged neurons. Neural progenitor cells are believed to play a role in learning and memory in the adult brain—and to be, somehow, resistant to Zika.
In the study, researchers from The Rockefeller University in New York and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology in California mimicked the spread of Zika infection in the brains of mice. They found the virus could target the rodents’ neural progenitor cells, which could result in cell death and impaired brain functioning. The findings are preliminary and have not been observed in humans, but they suggest the Zika virus may be more complicated than scientists understand now.