RSV Shown to Infect Nerve Cells, Cause Inflammation, and Damage

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common infection in children and senior adults, can also infect nerve cells and trigger inflammation leading to nerve damage, according to a new Tulane University study.

RSV can cause mild symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and fever or lead to more severe conditions such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis. But since the disease was first discovered in 1956, it has been thought to only infect the respiratory tract.

This study, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, is the first to prove that RSV can penetrate nerve cells and may provide the clearest link between RSV and reported neurological symptoms in children.

RSV has been previously detected in the spinal fluid of children with seizures. Additionally, 40% of RSV-positive children under the age of 2 have shown acute encephalopathy, brain damage that can result in confusion, memory loss or cognitive difficulties.

The findings underscore the potential long-term impacts of the disease, as well as the importance of preventative measures such as the two RSV vaccines approved by the FDA in 2023.

Researchers studied the virus using 3D peripheral nerve cultures grown from stem cells and rat embryos. After finding they can be infected by RSV, researchers found RSV induced the release of chemokines — proteins that fight infections by controlling immune cells — and caused significant inflammation.

With low levels of RSV infection, the nerves became hyperreactive to stimulation. At higher levels, they observed a progressive degeneration of the nerve and increased neurotoxicity due to excess inflammation.

The study also found that RSV could enter the spinal cord via peripheral nerves despite not having the ability to enter the spinal neurons directly.


Kevin J Pollard, Vicki Traina-Dorge, Stephen M Medearis, Alexander Bosak, Gregory J Bix, Michael J Moore, Giovanni Piedimonte. Respiratory syncytial virus infects peripheral and spinal nerves and induces chemokine-mediated neuropathy. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2023; DOI: 10.1093/infdis/jiad596

Tulane University. (2024, January 9). RSV shown to infect nerve cells, cause inflammation and damage. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 10, 2024 from 
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