Background: In the setting of severe immunosuppression, the polyomavirus JC (JCV) can cause a lytic infection of oligodendrocytes. This demyelinating disease of the CNS white matter (WM) is called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML). JCV has a very narrow host-cell range and productive infection of neurons has never been demonstrated. Patient, methods, and results: An HIV-1-infected patient presented with signs of pyramidal tract and cerebellar dysfunction. Brain MRI revealed T2 hyperintensities in the WM of both frontal lobes and cerebellar atrophy. His disease progressed despite therapy and he died 6 months later. In addition to classic PML findings in the frontal lobe WM, autopsy revealed scattered foci of tissue destruction in the internal granule cell layer (IGCL) of the cerebellum. In these foci, enlarged granule cell neurons identified by the neuronal markers MAP-2 and NeuN reacted with antibodies specific for the polyomavirus VP1 capsid protein. Electron microscopy showed 40 nm viral particles, consistent with polyomaviruses, in these granule cell neurons. In addition, JCV DNA was detected by PCR after laser capture microdissection of cells from the areas of focal cell loss. Finally, in situ hybridization studies demonstrated that many granule cell neurons were infected with JCV but did not contain viral proteins. Sequence analysis of the JCV regulatory region from cerebellar virions showed a tandem repeat pattern also found in PML lesions of the frontal lobe WM.
Conclusion: JCV can productively infect granule cell neurons of the IGCL of the cerebellum. This suggests a role for JCV infection of neurons in cerebellar atrophy occurring in HIV-infected individuals.