The British online Mirror reported late last month on a study that appeared in Cell: Stem Cell by Hongda Li and colleagues at the LaJolla Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. We already know that Zika can affect the brain development of the fetus, leading to microcephaly (small brain) in babies. The Mirror reports that the LaJolla study's authors suggest that Zika can infect and affect the brains of adult mammals as well...and may lead to dementia.
I read the study, which is available online, and indeed the mice they studied did show evidence of damage to special parts of the little mouse brains that are responsible for growing new brain cells. For a long time we thought that nerve cells were the only cells that didn't grow more after birth. Indeed, even our skeletons are entirely replaced--cell by cell--over the course of a decade. It turns out that nerve cells can also be and are being replaced, at least in our brains, and that they grow new connections when stimulated. This is the basis of the so-called "brain games" that have become popular: challenge your brain and grow new cells and connections. Get smarter--or at least preserve what you have.
Although the authors' conclusions in the published study are justifiably cautious and include careful scientific disclaimers about the some of the dissimilarities between mouse and human brains, they acknowledge that implications include the possibility that Zika virus infection in humans may contribute to various brain-based problems like memory loss, learning problems, and other neurological issues.
Let me stress that this is very early research. No scientist has linked Zika to actual human adult brain damage!
Part of what makes this interesting to me is the fact that the article in the Mirror pushes this preliminary finding--from a mouse brain model--out to the general public. It seems a bit glib, but scaring people into believing Zika might also cause adult-onset dementia must surely get "clicks."
Another part I find interesting is because I am a homeopath.
The researchers published their findings, and it's evident that they, like most scientists, view biology as a set of intricately interacting, but ultimately understandable, connections of tiny chemical structures interacting in a completely mechanistic way. It's clear in this model that all those chemical interactions are deterministic, except to the extent that chance encounters could also influence their ultimate expression. Put another way, we are the sum of millions of tiny chemical interactions, that if known would mean we can fully predict the development and treatment of disease. The only wild card would be random environmental interactions such as trauma, toxins, and radiation. Add to that an element of really random luck in how genes express themselves (which may or may not be true), and it's thought we can someday explain the whole thing.
In some systems of medical philosophy, like homeopathy, it is believed that ways in which this mechanistic model of biology attempts to account for everything that can happen (and thus how we can fix it all) lacks a certain piece. That piece is the subject of a lot of speculation, but what is not in doubt is that weird, unexplainable things do happen. The speculation is over why.
In Eastern Asian systems of medicine we talk about qi ("chi" or "chee"). In homeopathy, Hahnemann names it the "vital force" or dynamis (Aphorism 9). In other systems it goes by other names: energy field, dynamic field, organismic "vibration", and so on. This is a widespread idea, but could still be dismissed as the pervasiveness of mystical or magical thinking around the world and present in many cultures. Scientists of a materialist philosophical bent could be right. We just haven't figured out quite how all the parts work in synchrony and in disturbance.
Or, they could be wrong.
Granted, these "fields" or qi or whatever could be all wrong, but I doubt it. I think we just haven't quite gotten to a philosophy or technology that allows us to see what's really going on. That's my bias, and I'll own that. But that doesn't mean I'm wrong.
If life is governed by some sort of unifying field, it may be possible to manipulate that field, or at least understand how it becomes disturbed and causes organisms to sicken, suffer, and die. If it were so, and we already had some means of influencing that governing force, wouldn't that be worth exploring?
This week, as I do every week, I saw several people suffering from things seemingly unresponsive to regular medicine, things that seemed to "just happen". Some of them were new to me, and I'll have to wait and see if this thing called homeopathy works for them. Others were familiar, and we were following up to examine the effects of this supposedly "quack" medicine. The follow-ups were satisfying for the most part, examples of a system invented by a German crank 200 years ago because he took the time to really pay attention to what was going on with his patients. We don't fix everyone, and indeed some problems are better repaired by the materialism of regular medicine and surgery. But we fixed some people who were at their wits end.
If Zika does infect and affect human brains, is it possible that we already have at least some means to make people more resistant to it, or cure potentially disastrous effects? I haven't seen any verifiable cases of Zika yet at this latitude, but stay tuned.