A new study has linked the Zika virus with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, an autoimmune disease that targets the myelin sheath of the brain. The researchers, whose study will be presented at the 68th Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Vancouver, Canada, assert that further studies are still needed to confirm that the virus actually causes the neurological problem.

According to study author Maria Lucia Brito Ferreira from Restoration Hospital in Recife, Brazil, this symptoms are similar to the ones observed in multiple sclerosis. The researchers studied patients admitted to a hospital in the city between December 2014 through June 2015.

Initially, six individuals developed neurologic problems similar to autoimmune disease or disorders. After thorough exams and blood tests, the research team uncovered that these patients had the Zika virus. Overall, 151 patients had these neurologic problems during the study period, with some developing the symptoms immediately and some developing these 15 days later.

autoimmune disase

Zika virus rash. Photo from Wikimedia/FRED

All patients developed a rash with severe itching, had red eyes, joint pain, and muscle pain. Two of the six patients developed a disease that attacked the myelin, known as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM). The researchers explain that myelin wraps the core of a nerve fibre or axon and facilitates nerve impulses transmission.

Moreover, brains scans revealed that their brains’ white matter were also damaged and these findings were similar to multiple sclerosis. However, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis usually goes away within six months after treatment.

Nevertheless, five of the patients still suffered motor problems. Even one still had vision problems and another with problems with memory and thinking function.

Still, the researchers point out that this study has only shown the association, not the causality. Ferreira adds that not everyone infected with the virus will also suffer from these neurological problems.

James Sejvar, a physician with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, asserts that clinicians should still be aware of ADEM and other autoimmune diseases. Like the team, Sejvar hopes that more studies will uncover more insights about Zika virus and other immune-mediated neurologic diseases, helping clinicians combat the Zika virus and its effects.