(CN) - Scientists researching the link between the Zika virus and birth defects have discovered that the virus is able to infect cells similar to the ones involved in brain development, according to a study published Friday.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and Florida State University led the study , which sought to determine whether Zika is connected to a series of birth defects including microcephaly , a disorder that leads to reduced head size and potential brain damage. Their work was published in the journal Cell Stem Cell.
Their findings show that exposing lab-grown neuronal cells to the virus leads to infections, which limit the development of such cells and disrupts pathways while enabling the virus to rapidly copy itself.
Human skin cells were "reprogrammed" into pluripotent stem cells, which are stem cells that have the potential to differentiate into a layer of cells for the lungs, muscles, bones, the nervous system and a series of other tissues and organs.
The cells were then developed into human cortical neural progenitor cells, which are similar to the cells that mature to form the cortex - the outer layer of the fetal brain that performs several functions. This portion of the brain is often undeveloped in babies born with microcephaly.
According to the study, researchers found that the infected neural progenitor cells were incapable of dividing normally and died more frequently. The number of viable cells decreased over the first 72 hours following infection in comparison to cells that were not infected with the Zika virus.
Zika has been found to infect several different human cell types. But this research indicates that neural progenitor cells are more susceptible to the virus.
Different strands of Zika may develop and function differently, so it is unclear how far-ranging these findings will be for international efforts to stem the rapidly-spreading virus, researchers said.
"Maybe different strains of the Zika virus have different effects or maybe different people in different areas of the world have a different response to the same Zika virus," Dr. Zhexing Wen, a co-author of the study, told The Guardian.
While the study does not confirm a connection between Zika and microcephaly, it does add to other significant findings involving the virus and associated birth defects, which suggests that definitive proof may not be far from being established.
An ongoing study in Colombia may provide insight into how the virus works, and whether it is indeed connected to microcephaly and other birth defects. The study began in October.
Over 5,000 pregnant women have been included in the study, many of whom joined during their first trimester. A significant portion of the women are expected to give birth around June.
In addition to microcephaly, Zika has also been associated with Guillain-Barre syndrome and hydranencephaly.
Guillain-Barre is an autoimmune disorder that attacks the nervous system, leading to temporary paralysis and in rare cases, death.
Hydranencephaly is characterized by either significant or complete absence of brain tissue, as well as abnormal pools of fluid in the cranial cavity. The disorder was analyzed by a research group stationed in Brazil, which studied a fetus from a stillbirth in January.Follow @@SeanDuffyCNS
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