Newly released images of what effects the Zika virus can have on the brain of a fetus has overtook the World Wide Web on Tuesday.
“The images show the worst brain infections that doctors will ever see,” says Dr. Deborah Levine, from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who contributed to the study. “Zika is such a severe infection [in fetuses]. Most doctors will have never seen brains like this before.”
The medical pictures, which surfaced in the journal Radiology, were put together as a part of a special report compiled by a team of neurologists in Boston and doctors in northeastern Brazil.
“Our goal is to illustrate for health care professionals around the world what they could expect to see with a Zika infection during pregnancy,” Levine says.
Microcephaly – the condition that’s been the main focus of Zika, where babies are born with abnormally small heads – is just a small part of the story, the researchers suggest. They insist it gives an idea of the dangers of Zika – but isn’t the entire problem many research studies should be transfixed on.
The study magnified other problems with the virus, for example, a fetus born with a regular sized head, “but when you look inside the brain,” Levine notes, “there’s very little brain tissue present.”
Through an MRI scan, that same fetus at 36 weeks showed a brain filled with fluid, bloating the skull. Not only that, the baby was also missing parts of the nervous system, like sections of the brain stem, spinal cord, and midbrain (controls eye movements; processes information from the ears and eyes).
Most shockingly (and maybe the most graphic photo) depicts the baby’s flattened skull, and extra skin forming on top of the head. The skull likely collapsed in itself after the brain stopped growing, the researchers hypothesized.
Levine’s study examined images of 46 fetuses and babies born from mothers infected with Zika while pregnant. Levine and her colleagues sifted through 93 ultrasounds, 23 MRIs, and 41 CT scans, as well as autopsies on three babies who died after birth, to come to their conclusions.
What they found was consistent throughout was each baby had damage in the cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain. It’s a crucial area of the brain, one that oversees vital brain functions like problem-solving, emotion, and language. The cortex is usually ‘folded’, and gives our brain that classic shape – the Zika babies, however, had smooth cortexes. Additionally, all the babies had calcifications, or brain scarring, which shows where the virus has attacked the brain, stunting potential development.
“These babies will not be able to behave normally after birth,” Levine says. “The question is will they be able to see, hear and move normally.
The fetus’ also showed damage in their brain stems, and their cerebellum, which handles the body’s muscle activities and voluntary movements.
It’ll be interesting to see the next steps following this significant study. Levine and other researchers must determine what – if any – long-lasting neurological problems might be in fetus’ who don’t prominently display Zika symptoms.
“It’s too soon to answer that,” she says.