Study Finds Zika Virus Destroys Cells Crucial for Fetal Brain Development

Researchers find plausible biological link between the Zika virus and microcephaly.

The spread of the Zika virus has spurred public health concerns that it will become the next viral epidemic.

Documentation of infected individuals in the continental United States began in mid-January 2016.1 As of March 2, 2016, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported 153 cases of the virus spanning more than 28 US states, in addition to 108 cases in US territories.2

Although many infected individuals do not develop symptoms—and those who do see relatively mild and self-limiting ones—there have been concerns about reports of the Zika virus causing microcephaly in children born to infected mothers.

A recent study published in Cell Stem Cell evaluated the effects of the Zika virus on early brain development in lab-grown human stem cells.3

After exposing human neural progenitor cells that are responsible for the development of the brain’s cortex to the Zika virus, the researchers found that up to 90% of the cells had been infected by the virus within just 3 days of inoculation. Interestingly, infected cells were able to produce copies of the virus and perpetuate the infection.

The authors reported that the genes required for fighting off viral infection had not been activated. The majority of the infected cells died off, while the survivors were found to be unable to divide normally and create new brain cells.

While this study does not prove causation of microcephaly, the researchers suggested that their crucial findings may help others identify drug targets that may protect these cell types from infection.


1. McCarthy M. First US case of Zika virus infection is identified in Texas. BMJ. 2016;352:i212.

2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Zika virus disease in the United States, 2015—2016. Updated March 2, 2016. Accessed March 2, 2016.

3. Tang H, Hammack C, Ogden SC, Wen Z, Qian X, Li Y, Yao B, Shin J, Zhang F, Lee EM, Christian KM, Didier RA, Jin P, Song H, Ming G-L. Zika virus infects human cortical neural progenitors and attenuates their growth. Cell Stem Cell 2016;1-4.