Researchers at an Australian university have discovered a previously unknown effect Covid appears to have on the human brain.
Researchers at an Australian university have found that Covid-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease, potentially putting people at greater risk of developing neurodegenerative conditions.
A team at the University of Queensland’s School of Biomedical Sciences, led by Professor Trent Woodruff and Dr Eduardo Albornoz Balmaceda, joined with virologists from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences for the study, whose findings have been published in the scientific journal Molecular Psychiatry.
“We studied the effect of the virus on the brain’s immune cells, ‘microglia’, which are the key cells involved in the progression of brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” said Prof Woodruff.
“Our team grew human microglia in the laboratory and infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. We found the cells effectively became ‘angry’, activating the same pathway that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s proteins can activate.”
Activating that pathway creates a “fire” in the brain, which leads to a “chronic and sustained” process of killing off neurons.
“It’s kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years,” Dr Albornoz Balmaceda explained.
“It may explain why some people who’ve had Covid-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.”
A COVID-19 infected mouse brain from the study showing ‘angry’ microglia in green and SARS-CoV-2 in red. Picture: Supplied
The researchers found the effects of a Covid infection were exacerbated if there were already proteins in the brain linked to Parkinson’s.
“If someone is already predisposed to Parkinson’s, having Covid could be like pouring more fuel on that ‘fire’ in the brain,” Prof Woodruff said.
“The same would apply for a predisposition for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that have been linked to inflammasomes.”
The study did include a hint of better news however, with the researchers identifying a potential treatment for the inflammation.
Administering inhibitory drugs developed by the University of Queensland, which are currently being used in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients, “successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by Covid”.
In other words, the drugs were “essentially putting out the fire”, Dr Albornoz Balmaceda said.
“The drug reduced inflammation in both Covid-infected mice and the microglia cells from humans, suggesting a possible treatment approach to prevent neurodegeneration in the future,” he said.
“Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications,” added Prof Woodruff.