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Viruses double cerebral palsy risk

Jan 11, 2006
myDNA News

Children exposed to certain viral infections from their mothers before, during or just after birth (during the perinatal period) have an increased risk of developing cerebral palsy, according to research published in the British Medical Journal.

The South Australian Cerebral Palsy Research Group examined blood samples from 1,326 newborns (443 with cerebral palsy and 883 control subjects) for the evidence of herpes and related viruses. Testing for the nucleic acids from the viruses, the researchers found that exposure to varicella-zoster virus (VZV), human herpes virus 6 or human herpes virus 7 nearly doubles a child's risk of developing cerebral palsy.

The study draws attention to the roles of herpes 6 and 7 (which are present but dormant in the vast majority of adults), as well as the possibility that VZV vaccination of future mothers may reduce cerebral palsy rates in their children.

The study authors hypothesize that viruses may infect the brain and cause direct damage to neuronal tissues. In the case of herpes viruses, this could happen after the viruses' incubation period.

Alternatively, chemicals resulting from viral infection may cause indirect damage by kicking off inflammatory processes that damage developing white matter and cause eventual periventricular leukomalacia (softening, dysfunction and death of the white matter) and disruption of the endothelium and ependyma (membrane that lines the ventricles of the brain).

Samples for the study were collected between 1986 and 1999 in South Australia, where childhood vaccination against VZV has been available for only the last 10 years. The study suggests that there may be lower rates of cerebral palsy in children of a vaccinated generation of mothers, similar to the remarkable drop that occurred in the number of cases of rubella and congenital rubella syndrome after rubella vaccine became available in 1969.

Many infants in the control group (almost 40 percent) were exposed to viral infection but did not develop cerebral palsy, which suggests that other co-factors or triggers are involved in order for brain damage to occur.

The study also showed significantly higher prevalence of cytomegalovirus exposure in babies born preterm (at less than 37 weeks' gestation), suggesting that viral infection in the womb may also be associated with preterm delivery.

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