Memory Loss Caused by West Nile Virus Explained

Robyn Klein, MD, PhD, and Michael Vasek, PhD, examine images of mouse synapses. The researchers found that memory loss suffered by some survivors of West Nile encephalitis may be caused by the loss of synapses between neurons.Every year as mosquito season arrives, so does West Nile virus, causing fever in thousands of people nationwide and life-threatening brain infections in an unlucky few. About half the people who survive that infection – West Nile encephalitis – are left with permanent neurological deficits such as memory loss. New research shows that these long-term neurological problems may be due to the patient’s own immune system destroying parts of the neurons in the brain, which suggests that intervening in the immune response may help prevent brain damage so patients can recover.

“When I talk with other doctors about West Nile patients with these persistent neurological deficits, many say, ‘The virus in their brains must have killed neurons, and there’s nothing we can do about it,’” said Robyn Klein, MD, PhD, a professor of medicine and the study’s senior author. “My thinking has been, if we can determine what triggers this brain damage, maybe we can prevent it from happening or stop it afterwards.’”

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