Yale Neurologist Receives $2 Million NIH Grant to Study Virus That Can Lead to Many Brain Disorders

Yale neurovirology expert Anthony van den Pol and colleagues have received a $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study Cytomegalovirus (CMV), a virus which can lead to deafness, mental retardation and brain diseases such as epilepsy.

CMV is a common virus and the majority of people in the United States have already been infected with it. According to van den Pol, most infected adults don’t even know they are infected. The virus infects cells and can remain latent for decades before being activated. The immune system normally does a good job of keeping the pathogen in check, but if the immune system is depressed by diseases such as AIDS or by an organ transplant, then the virus can more easily become active. In early development, CMV can cause long-term brain damage.

“Our study will try to understand how the virus gets into the brain and how it may affect ion channel mechanisms of nerve cells, which are critical for communication between nerve cells,” said van den Pol, professor of neurosurgery at Yale School of Medicine.

Van den Pol’s lab will use a recombinant-artificially rearranged-virus inserted with a jellyfish gene, which codes for green fluorescent protein. When a nerve cell or glial cell in the brain is infected with the virus, the added gene causes the infected cell to turn green when viewed under a blue light. This allows live infected green cells to be compared with normal cells with in vitro experiments. They will use a combination of digital imaging, laser confocal microscopy and electrophysiological techniques to study the virus’ effect on the cell membrane properties and ion channel regulation.

Van den Pol said one percent of all babies in the United States are born infected with the virus and about 10 percent of those babies will develop a CMV-related brain disease. These diseases can include epilepsy; hydrocephalus (excess fluid causes the brain to expand abnormally); and microcephaly (abnormal development causes the brain to be smaller than normal, leading to learning disorders).

“We’re extremely grateful for this grant because it will help us shed light on the basic mechanisms of how CMV compromises the developing brain, which may lead to prevention and to a reduction in the debilitating actions of this common virus,” said van den Pol.

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Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-432-1326