Researchers Find RSV Could Cause Inflammation by Infecting Nerve Cells

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RSV could interact with nerve cells, causing nerve damage and possible entry to the spinal cord.

New study findings show that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) could infect nerve cells and activate inflammation that could lead to nerve damage, highlighting the long-term impacts that individuals infected with RSV could experience, according to researchers at Tulane University.

RSV virus and DNA on the background of infant feet - Image credit: Julia | stock.adobe.com

Image credit: Julia | stock.adobe.com

RSV could present as a mild cold, with symptoms of coughing, sneezing and fever. However, the illness could also be more severe in certain individuals, causing pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

“This is the most common respiratory virus in the first years of life as well as an impactful virus among the elderly,” said Giovanni Piedimonte, MD, Tulane University vice president for research and professor of pediatrics, biochemistry, and molecular biology, in a press release.

According to the press release, RSV was discovered in 1956 and was reported to only infect the respiratory tract. However, in a study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, researchers found a connection with penetration of nerve cells.

To conduct their study, Piedimonte and researchers used 3D peripheral nerve cultures grown from stem cells and rat embryos to evaluate its linkage to RSV. The study authors noted that after discovering the rat embryos could be infected with the illness, they then found RSV prompted the release of chemokines.

According to the press release, chemokines are a protein that could attack infections by governing immune cells. The researchers were then able to identify the cause of inflammation, through the chemokines.

“Until this study, the theory was that the inflammatory response was indirectly activating the nerves,” Piedimonte said, in a press release. “This study shows that not only does that happen, but the virus can penetrate directly into the nerves.”

However, different levels of RSV infection impacted the activity of the nerve. The researchers observed that with low levels of infection, the nerve was hyperactive to stimulation, as higher levels displayed a “progressive degeneration of the nerve and increased neurotoxicity due to excess inflammation.”

Piedimonte noted that the hyperactivity experienced at low levels of RSV infection could relate to asthmatic symptoms young individuals could face later in life.

When conducing this study, the researchers also found that RSV could enter the spinal cord through the peripheral nerves. Researchers are unaware in what way it could enter since it does not have the ability to travel directly through the spinal neurons.

Piedimonte predicted that RSV could avoid the blood-drainer barrier and enter the central nervous system. While this is not yet confirmed, if factual it could link RSV to other neurological disorders.

“If indeed it’s confirmed in future studies that viruses like this are able to access the central nervous system, that opens a huge Pandora’s box,” Piedimonte said, in a press release.

Reference

RSV shown to infect nerve cells, cause inflammation and damage. EurekAlert!. News release. January 9, 2024. Accessed January 11, 2024. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/1030803.

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