WEDNESDAY, Oct. 19, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- New research may shed light on how the Zika virus causes the devastating birth defect known as microcephaly.

Microcephaly causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads and brains.

In this new study, researchers said Zika disrupts fetal brain development by impairing the growth of human neural progenitor cells (hNPCs). These cells normally develop into brain and nervous system cells, the scientists said.

The findings could help lead to the development of vaccines and treatments, the study authors said.

Results from the study were to be presented Wednesday at the American Society of Human Genetics meeting in Vancouver.

"We set out to study why Zika causes microcephaly and related viruses like dengue virus don't," presenting author Feiran Zhang said in a society news release. Zhang is a postdoctoral researcher at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

"Our results suggest that Zika virus might function as a 'Trojan horse' by 'hijacking' the human cell's machinery," Zhang explained. Once it infects cells, the virus interacts with human enzymes in a way that seems to alter brain development, leading to microcephaly, he said.

But Zhang said these findings probably aren't the last word on how Zika causes microcephaly. "It's likely that the mechanisms we found are just some of the many ways in which Zika virus acts," he said.

Research presented at meetings is generally viewed as preliminary published in a peer-reviewed journal.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the Zika virus.