Zika Targets Brain Cells, Scientists Find

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March 4 — Scientists have found that the Zika virus targets cells that grow into the brain, they said in a paper published March 4 as the evidence mounts of a link between the Zika virus and a serious birth defect.

A team of researchers from Johns Hopkins and Florida State universities found the Zika virus specifically attacks the stem cells that grow into the outer layer of the brain. They stopped short of concluding that their findings prove any causal link between Zika and microcephaly. But they said their study pinpoints where the virus may be doing the most damage.

“This is a first step, and there's a lot more that needs to be done,” said Hongjun Song, co-author of the study and a neuroscientist and stem cell biologist at Hopkins. “What we show is that the Zika virus infects neuronal cells in dish that are counterparts to those that form the cortex during human brain development.” The authors added that their findings, which are based on stem cells, don't demonstrate what is happening in the developing fetus. Direct evidence for a link between the Zika virus and microcephaly is more likely to come from clinical studies, they said.

Guo-li Ming, a Hopkins neuroscientist interested in brain disorders like microcephaly, said there are case reports for the Zika virus showing that certain brain areas appear to have developed normally, but it is mostly the cortical structures that are missing.

“So a very important question that emerges from our work is whether the Zika virus specifically targets the neural progenitor mostly responsible for generating the cortex,” Ming said.

Their paper, “Zika Virus Infects Human Cortical Neural Progenitors and Attenuates Their Growth,” appeared online March 4 in the journal Cell Stem Cell.


The Zika virus is a mosquito-borne virus that is in the same class as Dengue. The outbreak has spread to more than 30 countries throughout the Americas, with more than 150 cases of U.S. residents contracting the virus while traveling to an infected country. There have been no locally acquired cases of the virus in the contiguous U.S., but there have been more than 100 local cases in Puerto Rico. There is no vaccine, and President Barack Obama has asked Congress for $1.9 billion in funds to fight the virus .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at jbaumann@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lee Barnes at lbarnes@bna.com

For More Information

The Cell Stem Cell paper is available at http://bit.ly/1L7ydbT.

More information on the outbreak is available at http://www.cdc.gov/zika/.