Powassan Virus Induces Structural Changes in Human Neuronal Cells In Vitro and Murine Neurons In Vivo

Jacob Nelson, Lorenzo Ochoa, Paula Villareal, Tiffany Dunn, Ping Wu, Gracie Vargas, Alexander N. Freiberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Powassan virus (POWV) is a tick-borne flavivirus (TBFV) that can cause severe encephalitis in humans with a case–fatality rate as high as 11%. Patients who survive severe encephalitic disease can develop long-term neurological sequelae that can be debilitating and life-long. In this study, we have sought to characterize a primary human fetal brain neural stem cell system (hNSC), which can be differentiated into neuron and astrocyte co-cultures, to serve as a translational in vitro system for infection with POWV and a comparative mosquito-borne flavivirus (MBFV), West Nile virus (WNV). We found that both viruses are able to infect both cell types in the co-culture and that WNV elicits a strong inflammatory response characterized by increased cytokines IL-4, IL-6, IL-8, TNF-α and IL-1β and activation of apoptosis pathways. POWV infection resulted in fewer cytokine responses, as well as less detectable apoptosis, while neurons infected with POWV exhibited structural aberrations forming in the dendrites. These anomalies are consistent with previous findings in which tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) infected murine primary neurons formed laminal membrane structures (LMS). Furthermore, these structural aberrations are also recapitulated in brain tissue from infected mice. Our findings indicate that POWV is capable of infecting human primary neurons and astrocytes without causing apparent widespread apoptosis, while forming punctate structures reminiscent with LMS in primary human neurons and in vivo.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1218
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2022


  • clarity
  • human neural stem cell (hNSC)-derived neuron astrocyte co-culture
  • laminal membrane structures
  • neuroinflammation
  • neurovirulence
  • powassan virus
  • west nile virus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases


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