May 29, 2024

New Study Finds Immune Response, Not Viral Infections, Causes Neurological Damage

In a groundbreaking discovery, researchers from McMaster University have found that it is not acute viral infections like Zika or COVID-19 that directly cause neurological damage, but rather the immune system’s response. The study, led by Ph.D. student Elizabeth Balint and Professor Ali Ashkar, offers a new understanding of the relationship between viral infections and neurological diseases.

The research, published in Nature Communications on February 5, 2024, aimed to investigate why viral infections are often associated with neurological damage. Balint explains, “Our evidence suggests that it’s not the virus itself that causes the damage, but a unique population of T cells, which are part of the immune system, that are actually responsible for the damage.”

The focus of the study was on the Zika virus. During laboratory testing, the researchers observed T cells that were specific to Zika and designed to eliminate infected cells. However, they also discovered a different type of T cell that was functioning abnormally and killing non-infected cells.

These atypical T cells, known as NKG2D+CD8+ T cells, were found to be responsible for neurological damage not only in Zika infections but also in other viral infections like COVID-19 and septic shock.

The researchers attribute the aggressive response of these cells to the production of excessive inflammatory proteins called cytokines. While cytokines serve a crucial role in coordinating the body’s immune response, excessive production can lead to non-specific activation of immune cells and result in collateral damage, particularly in the brain.

This groundbreaking discovery provides a new target for the treatment of neurological diseases caused by acute viral infections. Balint has already made progress in this regard, as she has identified an antibody that shows promise in treating neurotoxicity in animal models. This antibody is currently undergoing clinical trials for other medical purposes, raising hope for potential therapeutic applications.

Balint emphasizes the importance of further research in order to develop effective treatment options. “There are a few different other viruses we’re interested in studying, which will aid us in creating the best treatment options,” she says.

Overall, this study challenges the long-established notion that acute viral infections directly cause neurological damage. Instead, it highlights the crucial role of the immune system and offers new possibilities for targeted treatments and interventions in the field of neurology.

1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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