It seems that the more information scientists find out about the Zika virus, the grimmer the picture of the situation becomes.
Researchers in Brazil and the United States have released new images that show how Zika manages to impact development of babies whose mothers become infected with virus during their pregnancy.
While Zika has been associated with the development of microcephaly, the scientists discovered that the effects of the virus go beyond producing abnormally sized heads in unborn babies.
The infection can also damage critical parts of the baby's brain such as the cerebellum, which is responsible for speech, balance and movement; the corpus callosum, which links the brain's two hemispheres together; and the basal ganglia, which govern human emotion and thinking.
"It's not just the small brain, it's that there's a lot more damage," Dr. Deborah Levine, a radiology professor at the Harvard Medical School and one of the authors of the study, said.
"The abnormalities that we see in the brain suggest a very early disruption of the brain development process."
Impairments In Infant Brains
Aside from the identified damage to infant brains, the study also sheds light on the possibility that the Zika virus could continue to impact brain development even as the child grows.
The researchers noted that most of the babies that they examined suffered from problems in their brain's cortex, such as calcium clumps and neurons that weren't able to reach the appropriate part of their brain.
Since the babies' cortex will continue to develop as they grow older, Levine and her colleagues are concerned that the children might also suffer from mild cases that scientists haven't identified yet. This makes monitoring the children after their birth crucial to find out whether they will develop cortical abnormalities.
The researchers took brain scans and ultrasound images of 17 babies whose mothers were infected with the Zika virus during their pregnancy. They also took images of 28 other children whose mothers showed symptoms of Zika but had not been confirmed to have the infection through laboratory testing.
Three of the babies involved in the study died only three days after they were born. The researchers examined reports from the babies' autopsy.
The brain scans included those from twins who had developed microcephaly. Levine said the images show that the babies had sloping foreheads and folds of overlapping skin, which are signs that their forebrains were not able to develop properly.
Levine and her colleagues pointed out that they have released the images to provide doctors with a better understanding on what signs to search for in the brains of fetuses and newly born babies that have been affected by the Zika virus.
The findings of the multi-organizational study are featured in the journal Radiology.