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How the Zika virus may affect adult brain cells

Unless you’ve been avoiding all news programmes lately, you’ll be well aware of the concern generated over the spread of the Zika virus. However, while most of the news has concentrated on the effects it has on the unborn child, very little has been released about how it may affect the adult brain. Now a new study by scientists from The Rockefeller University and La Jolla Institute suggest that certain cells in the adult brain may also be vulnerable to the virus.

Thus far, concerns about the virus have been focused on pregnant women as evidence suggesting that it causes brain abnormalities in the developing foetus continues to mount. However, thanks to research carried out by these two teams, it now appears that the adult brain may be at risk too; particularly in the cells whose function is to replace lost or damaged neurons, and which are believed to be critical to learning and memory.

This study is the first of its type to actually look at the effect of the Zika virus on a mature brain and, according to the findings, succumbing to the virus as an adult may have more repercussions than we originally thought. What is known, is that it is able to enter the adult brain and, while most adults infected with the virus don’t show detectable symptoms, the scientists are now aware of the signs that indicate that damage has been caused.

The scientists believe that adults are less susceptible to the virus as at some point during their development they’ve come into contact with it and so developed a resistance to the virus. However, their current evidence suggests that as the virus targets neural progenitor cells, and that the mature brain still retains small areas of these cells, it’s possible for the virus to have a similar effect on these particular cells as it does in the developing brain.

While more research will be necessary to determine whether this damage has long-term implications or whether it could affect a person’s behaviour, this study does suggest that being infected with Zika is not just like having a common cold or the flu. Furthermore, as the virus appears to be travelling around the world, we need to find out more about its effects on the entire population, not just pregnant women.

The findings were published in the online journal Cell Stem Cell.

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