Rabies virus, formally called Rabies lyssavirus, affects the central nervous system and causes encephalitis, or acute inflammation of the brain.
It’s a viral infection transmitted by infected animals, like dogs and bats, and once symptoms develop, it’s usually fatal.
The rabies virus is part of the rhabdoviridae family of viruses.
All rhabdoviruses are single-strand RNA viruses surrounded by a helical capsid, or a helix-shaped protein layer, all within a distinct bullet-shaped outer envelope, which is covered in glycoprotein spikes.
They’re also negative sense RNA viruses, which means that before it can be used to make proteins their genetic material has to be transcribed into mRNA.
And these viruses carry their own RNA polymerase to do just that.
To understand how rabies works, first let’s look at the human nervous system.
The nervous system is divided into the central nervous system, so the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes all the nerves that connect the central nervous system to the muscles and organs.
Neurons, the main cells of the nervous system, have nerve fibers that extend out from the neuron cell body- these are either dendrites that receive signals from other neurons, or axons that send signals along to other neurons.
Where two neurons come together is called a synapse, and that’s where one end of an axon releases neurotransmitters, further relaying the signal to the dendrites or directly to the cell body of the next neuron in the series.
Some synapses allow neurons to relay signals to other types of cells, like the neuromuscular junction where motor neurons innervate muscle cells by releasing the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.
Acetylcholine binds to nicotinic receptors on the muscle cell membrane, which are ion channels that open when acetylcholine binds to them; and they allow positive ions like sodium and calcium to cross the cell membrane, triggering a muscle contraction.