A new study of La Cross virus (LACV) in Dr. Karin Peterson's lab at Hamilton's Rocky Mountain Laboratories suggests that an invading virus can cause the body's own immune system to kill neurons in the brain.

The study is published in the March 14 issue of the research publication, Immunity. LaCross virus infects neurons and causes brain damage by encephalitis (brain swelling) in young children. There is no specific treatment for the infection, and in fact, LACV is often under-diagnosed.

In a news release, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said the study in mice and cell cultures showed the virus using a protein (MAVS) to activate immune systems, including another protein (SARM1) that kills neurons by damaging the cells' energy source - mitochondria. When SARM1 was removed, "significantly fewer neurons died, despite similar LACV infection."

The study suggests that SARM1 could do the same in other neurological diseases. That possibility will now be studied. Scientists hope to develop therapeutics to treat encephalitic viral infections.

The study was authored by Karin E. Peterson, Roger A. Moore, Piyali Mukherjee, and Tyson A. Woods.

The Rocky Mountain Laboratories facility is part of the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.