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Zika May Harm Adults' Brains, Too, Not Just Babies'

Some adults infected with the Zika virus can develop a serious brain and nervous system disorder, according to new research.

Zika virus can cause a serious brain and nervous system disorder in adults. Shutterstock
Just when you thought the Zika virus couldn't get any more terrifying, Brazilian scientists have found a link between the mosquito-borne illness and a brain disorder in adults.

We've known for quite some time now that the virus poses a grave danger to pregnant women in that it can lead to significant birth defects like microcephaly and brain damage in fetuses. Research has also shown a link between infection during pregnancy and miscarriage.

But for the average adult, experts have said the virus causes only mild symptoms, like fever, rash, joint pain, and pink eye, although studies have found some people who are infected with Zika come down with Guillain-Barre syndrome, which attacks the nerves and causes temporary paralysis.

This newest Brazilian research points to another potential troubling side effect of becoming infected. Specifically, according to Fox News, scientists have discovered Zika may cause an autoimmune syndrome called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, which attacks one's central nervous system.

According to the NIH, ADEM is basically a brief but widespread attack of inflammation in the brain and spinal cord that damages the protective covering of nerve fibers, called myelin. The syndrome, which can follow viral or bacterial infections, is characterized by rapidly appearing encephalitis-like symptoms, like fever, fatigue, headache, nausea, and vomiting, and in the most severe cases, seizures and coma.

Explains Dr. Maria Lucia Brito, a neurologist at Restoration Hospital in Recife, Brazil, "Though our study is small, it may provide evidence that in this case, the virus has different effects on the brain than those identified in current studies."

The study looked at 151 patients who had arboviruses, the family of viruses to which Zika belongs. Six developed autoimmune disorders, four had Guillain-Barre, and two had ADEM. Symptoms lasted about six months, although five patients reported lasting effects like motor dysfunction, vision problems, and cognitive decline.

Researchers are quick to note ADEM doesn't seem to be as prevalent as Guillain-Barre. But still, this is a troubling new development and presents just one more reason why getting Zika is something to fear, whether you're pregnant or not.

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Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.