July 21, 2020

While much progress has been made during the last few years in combating and preventing the deadly Zika virus, researchers are still working toward a greater understanding of how the disease affects the development of the brain in newborns.

Recently, scientists at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center (YNPRC) made a breakthrough by showing Zika virus infection, soon after birth, leads to long-term brain and behavior problems. The study is one of the first to shed light on potential long-term effects of Zika infection during infancy.

“Researchers have shown the devastating damage Zika virus causes to a fetus, but we had questions about what happens to the developing brain of a young child who gets infected by Zika,” says lead researcher Ann Chahroudi, MD, PhD, an affiliate scientist in the Division of Microbiology and Immunology at Yerkes, director of the Center for Childhood Infections and Vaccines (CCIV), Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) and Emory University, and an associate professor of pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine.

The study followed four infant rhesus monkeys for one year after Zika virus infection at one month of age. Studying a rhesus monkey until the age of one translates to the equivalent of four to five years in human age.

Researchers found postnatal Zika virus infections led to significant changes in behavior—including reduced social interactions and increased emotional reactions—and some impairments in memory and gross motor abilities. 

“These changes corresponded with structural and functional brain changes we found on MRI scans,” says researcher Jessica Raper, PhD, research assistant professor at Yerkes. “This is especially important because it allows us to confirm the neurologic findings lead to ongoing and noticeable changes in behavior,” she continues. 

The researchers also noted this finding will give healthcare providers a greater understanding of the possible complications of Zika infection following pregnancy and birth.

“Our results shed light on potential outcomes of human infants infected with Zika virus after birth and provide a platform to test treatments to alleviate long-term neurologic consequences of Zika infection,” says Chahroudi. “Our research team encourages future studies to understand the impact of early postnatal Zika infection during later stages of life, from adolescence to adulthood.”

More than 85 countries and territories have reported evidence of mosquito-acquired Zika virus infection, for which there is no cure or treatment medications. Zika virus and the mosquitoes that transmit it have not been eliminated, and so transmission remains a risk.

Research related to the prevention and treatment of Zika at the NPRCs is ongoing. You can learn more about our studies and findings here. 

The study in this article was highlighted by the editors of Nature Communications on a dedicated webpage for brain and behavioral research.


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