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Release: Nov. 9, 1999

Researcher gets grant to study cause of neurologic birth defects

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A University of Iowa Health Care pediatrician has received a grant from the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, within the National Institutes of Health, to study neurologic birth defects caused by infection with lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), an infection transmitted by field mice and other rodents.

Daniel Bonthius, M.D., Ph.D., UI assistant professor of pediatrics and the study's principal investigator, said the three-year, $267,120 Mentored Clinical Scientist Award will help fund the first study of its kind at the UI. The grant was effective Sept. 30. Stanley Perlman, M.D., Ph.D., UI professor of pediatrics and microbiology, is serving as Bonthius' mentor for the study.

About 10 percent of all Americans carry antibodies to LCMV, indicating prior infection. Most people become infected with the virus during the late fall and winter months, when mice, in whom the virus is endemic, move into people's homes for the winter.

A pregnant woman infected by the virus usually has only mild symptoms such as fever, malaise or headache. However, the infection puts the fetus at risk for severe brain defects that can result in mental retardation, epilepsy and cerebral palsy.

"We are attempting to discover the molecular and cellular mechanisms by which the virus, and the immune response to it, interact to damage the developing brain," Bonthius said. "LCMV is a human pathogen that is probably responsible for far more cases of fetal brain injury than has previously been recognized."

Bonthius said that newborn infants with microcephaly (abnormally small head usually accompanied by mental retardation), hydrocephalus (abnormal fluid increase in the cranial cavity), epilepsy or cerebral palsy should probably be evaluated for congenital LCMV infection, if no other explanation for their condition is apparent.

Although no treatment for LCMV infection exists, pregnant women can minimize their risk of becoming infected with the virus by taking steps to eliminate mice in their homes, especially during the fall and early winter months.

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