RSV may cause inflammation and lead to nerve damage, study finds

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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A recent study suggests that RSV can directly infect nerve cells, potentially causing neurological symptoms in young children. Maskot/Getty Images
  • Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that primarily impacts young children and older adults and may cause severe symptoms.
  • Data from a recent study suggests that RSV can directly infect peripheral nerve cells, potentially damaging the nervous system.
  • Further research is needed to understand the full neurological effects of RSV and any long-term consequences.

Health">Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a virus that affects the respiratory tract, leading to a wide range of symptoms.

Children and older adults are typically most at risk for RSV, even though older children and adults of all ages can also contract this virus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates between 58,000 and 80,000 children less than 5 years old are hospitalized because of RSV infection.

Most of the focus has been on how RSV impacts the respiratory system. However, researchers are also interested in learning how the virus affects other systems in the body.

A recent study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases examined the impact of RSV on the nervous system using peripheral nerve and spinal cord cultures.

Researchers found that the virus affected peripheral nerve cells directly and indirectly. They found that a critical component is that RSV leads to inflammation and then to nerve damage.

RSV also somewhat affected the spinal cord cultures, infecting microglia and dendritic cells, contributing to inflammation. However, RSV did not infect spinal neurons directly.

The results indicate the need for more research on the neurological effects of RSV and the best options for protection from the virus.

Study author Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, vice president for Research Institutional Official, research integrity officer at Tulane University, and professor of Pediatrics, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Tulane School of Medicine, explained to Medical News Today:

“Our study is the first to prove that RSV, one of the most common respiratory viruses in young children and the elderly, can infect peripheral nerves and may provide the clearest link between RSV and reported neurological symptoms. RSV infection was associated with a strong inflammatory response and changes in the conduction of electric signals within the nerves.”

For the study, researchers wanted to understand more about the particular effects of RSV on the nervous system.

They used cultures of nerve tissue from rats and human-induced pluripotent stem cells.

They were able to look at how RSV impacted these cells. The main focus was to examine the impact on peripheral nerve and spinal cord cells. They examined and analyzed the samples on days 1, 8, and 30 after infection to help understand the effects.

There were several components to the results. They found that RSV infected certain cells but not others.

For example, they found that RSV did not infect astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, or Schwann cells, all specific cell types that researchers were able to examine.

In the spinal cord cultures, RSV infected specific cells called microglia and dendritic cells but did not infect neurons.

In the peripheral nerve cultures, RSV infected the neurons, dendritic cells, and macrophages. Macrophages are part of the body’s immune response and are involved in the inflammation response.

Dr. Piedimonte noted the significant element of the results was the inflammatory response and the resulting nerve damage. This had to do with chemokine release.

Chemokines are specific proteins involved in inflammation. Results were also related to the level of infection with RSV.

“With low levels of RSV infection, the nerves became hyperreactive to stimulation, whereas at higher levels, nerves underwent progressive degeneration and increased neurotoxicity due to excess inflammation,” Dr. Piedimonte explained.

“The nerve hyperreactivity could explain why children who get RSV are later more likely to have asthmatic symptoms.”

“The study also found that RSV could enter the spinal cord via peripheral nerves despite not having the ability to enter the spinal neurons directly. More research is needed to explore that mechanism, but we theorize that by using the peripheral nerves to enter the spinal cord, RSV can bypass the blood-brain barrier, enter the central nervous system, and cause the neurologic complications seen in the patients.”

— Dr. Giovanni Piedimonte, study author

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