August 28, 2016

Research Roundup: Your brain on Zika

Senior Program Assistant

In this regular feature on Breakthroughs, we highlight some of the most interesting reads in global health research from the past week. In this edition, we cover new insights into the impact of the Zika virus on the brain.

Researchers have released medical images of 46 fetuses and infants born to women who were infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, revealing serious brain damage beyond microcephaly. The images, which include 23 MRI scans, 41 CT scans, and 93 ultrasounds, were taken at Instituto de Pesquisa in Campina Grande State Paraiba in northeastern Brazil and analyzed by neurologists at the Instituto in partnership with a team at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. The brain damage manifests in distinct ways: many of the scans showed skulls filled with cerebrospinal fluid, and in one case there was so little brain tissue that the skull collapsed in on itself, resulting in a flattened skull with extra skin. The images indicated damage to the brain stem, which regulates breathing and heart rate; the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor control; and the cortex, which is involved for learning, memory, emotion, and language.

New research suggests that Hofbauer cells, found in the placenta and tasked with protecting the fetus from pathogens, may be the key to the Zika virus' ability to cross the maternal-fetal barrier. Hofbauer cells are macrophages, immune cells that combat pathogens by consuming them. However, dengue virus—a flavivirus related to Zika—is able to hijack macrophages, using them to replicate and disseminate throughout the body. While the researchers have confirmed that the Zika virus is able to survive within Hofbauer cells, they suspect that the immune cells may also be enabling the virus to travel to the fetal brain. The study also confirms that the virus can replicate within fibroblasts, a critical component of the placenta’s structure, a finding described as, “a bit of a surprise,” by one of the study’s authors.

Scientists at Rockefeller University have also described their recent findings as "kind of a surprise," in this case, that certain adult brain cells are also susceptible to the virus. Fetal brains are primarily comprised of neural progenitor cells; while these stems cells are not as ubiquitous in adults, they play a critical role in learning and memory. Earlier this year, researchers determined that fetal neural progenitor cells are particularly vulnerable to Zika. Now, the team at Rockefeller has confirmed that adult neural progenitor cells are no exception. The study revealed an increase in cell death but a decrease in the production of new brain cells in infected adult mice. More research is needed to determine how this translates to humans, however, such damage could increase risk for cognitive challenges, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.