Zika virus' effects are broader than first thought

Babies may have to deal with far more than small heads.

The Zika virus is primarily known to cause microcephaly (small heads) in the babies of infected mothers, but its effects may be wider-ranging than first thought. A Harvard-led study has conducted brain scans of 45 Brazilian babies from Zika-stricken mothers, and the data suggest that even those children born without conspicuous problems may suffer later on. Ultimately, Zika is disrupting brain development -- microcephaly is a frequent result of that, but there can also be issues around the cortex (which is crucial to coordination and memory) that show up first and may only materialize on the outside as the child grows. Moreover, Zika can damage nerves in such a way that it forces arms and hands to contract.

The virus is even deceptive at times. As it can prevent brain cavities from properly draining cerebrospinal fluid, you may get the false impression that some fetuses are normal when they're really victims of Zika-related bloat. There's a real risk that the cavities can burst and collapse the brain.

The scans will help make sense of how Zika behaves, and could also help with critical decisions. Parents may learn about a fetus' fate early enough to decide whether or not they want to carry it to term. At the same time, it could offer hope to parents by revealing when a fetus is untouched -- if those early warnings signs don't appear, the family might rest that much easier. Although wider studies are necessary to get the full scope of what's happening (one just started with 10,000 babies), this is an important start.