Scientists for the first time have shown the movement of malaria parasites in the body using advanced computer modeling and laboratory experiments. Researchers displayed how malaria parasites alters red blood cells and how the infected blood cells block blood flow to the brain and other critical organs.
Researchers at Brown University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology worked with Plasmodium falciparum, a parasite that can cause cerebral malaria by lodging in capillaries of the brain, especially among children.
Once introduced into the human body by an infected mosquito's bite, the parasite invades red blood cells.
Through extensive modeling carried out on one of the world's fastest supercomputers at the National Institute for Computational Sciences, George Karniadakis and colleagues found that malaria-infected red blood cells stiffened as much as 50 times more than healthy red blood cells.
The result: Infected red blood cells, having lost their elasticity, could no longer pass through capillaries, effectively blocking them.
"Basically what happens is the brain could be deprived of nutrients and oxygen," said Karniadakis.
Their findings were published in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.