Why Does Zika Virus Infect Brain Tissue?


When Zika virus appeared in the news in 2015 and 2016, one of the biggest warnings was for pregnant women: be careful, as this can cause birth defects. Most commonly, Zika virus causes brain-related defects in infants. But why does the virus go after the brain? New research published in Nature Communications argues that the presence of certain fat-based molecules, like sphingolipids, could be the cause.

Zika Virus

First discovered in 1947, Zika virus is often found in the Pacific Islands, tropical Africa, and Southeast Asia. The virus, most commonly spread by mosquitoes, can cause severe birth defects. As a result, it is considered extremely dangerous for expectant mothers. Generally, when an adult is infected, symptoms are mild and last around one week. However, Zika virus is more severe for infants. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Rash
  • Red eyes
  • Brain defects (infants)
  • Developmental delays (infants)
  • Microcephaly (infants)

Currently, there are no approved treatments or cures for Zika virus. Learn more about Zika virus here.

Understanding Infection

Previously, researchers discovered that Zika virus genetically changes cells so that they create the proteins that they need for replication. However, they wanted to understand how the virus actually changes cells on a molecular level.

One microbiologist named Fikadu Tafesse pinpointed a specific research focus: lipids. As described by Encyclopedia Brittanica, lipids are:

any of a diverse group of organic compounds including fats, oils, hormones, and certain components of membranes that are grouped together because they do not interact appreciably with water.

Lipids play a role in energy storage, cell membrane structure, and cell signaling. When the body is infected by a virus, the virus sometimes steals lipids from host cells, as the virus can’t make enough on its own. Since the brain is full of lipids, Tafesse wondered if Zika virus infected nerve and brain cells because of easier replication.

To begin, he infected human liver cells with the Zika virus. Next, his research team analyzed 340 lipids from both healthy and infected liver cells. Overall, lipids from infected cells began to change within 2 days, suggesting that Zika virus changed lipid production and development.

Sphingolipids in Zika Virus

After performing additional analysis on liver cells, researchers found that even a small infection altered lipids. One particular sphingolipid, called ceramide, stuck out to researchers. By inhibiting the production of sphingolipids in cells, researchers were able to prevent the virus from replicating. As a result, researchers linked sphingolipids to the spread and replication of this virus.

Read the source article here.

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn

Jessica Lynn has an educational background in writing and marketing. She firmly believes in the power of writing in amplifying voices, and looks forward to doing so for the rare disease community.

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