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Hepatitis C Virus Causes Brain Inflammation Leading to Neuron Injury

Hepatitis C virus (HCV) can breach the blood-brain barrier and infect support cells in the brain, triggering inflammatory changes that ultimately result in damage to neurons, suggests new research published in the open access online journal PLoS One. Findings from this autopsy study may help explain how HCV infection causes neurocognitive impairment, including the poor concentration and memory problems commonly referred to as "brain fog."

U of A Medical Research Team Discovers
Hepatitis C Virus Damages Brain Cells

Edmonton, Alberta -- October 7, 2010 -- A University of Alberta researcher specializing in neurological infections has discovered that the hepatitis C virus injures and inflames brain cells, resulting in neurological issues for some patients living with the disease. Until now, no one has been able to prove this.

A recent Canadian study suggests that 13 per cent of people with hepatitis C, a chronic condition that affects 300,000 Canadians, also have neurological problems. Other research has suggested the hepatitis C virus might penetrate the blood-brain barrier. Chris Power, the Canada Research Chair in Neurological Infection and Immunity with the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and his team decided to tackle this theory conducting experiments on human cadavers.

"We saw the virus in the brain of a deceased patient who had hepatitis C," said Powers, who noted that normally it is very difficult for any type of virus or infection to pass the blood-brain barrier. Based on this discovery, the researchers made three new and major findings. The hepatitis C virus damaged those neurons in the brain responsible for motor functions, memory and concentration. The virus also triggered inflammation of the brain, which contributed to more neurons being damaged. And, thirdly, the virus stopped a natural process in the brain cells called autophagy, in which the cells get rid of unwanted toxic proteins. So, instead, the brain cells were accumulating large amounts of these toxic proteins, causing further damage to the brain cells.