‘Silent killer’ – it turns out that COVID-19 causes inflammation in the brain – UQ News
Research led by the University of Queensland has shown that COVID-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease.
Discovery identified potential future risk for neurodegenerative conditions in people who have had COVID-19, but also a possible treatment.
“We studied the effect of the virus on the brain’s immune cells, ‘microglia’, which are key cells involved in the progression of brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” Professor Woodruff said.
“Our team grew human microglia in the laboratory and infected the cells with it SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
“We found that the cells actually became ‘angry’, activating the same pathway that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s proteins can activate in the disease, the inflammasome.”
dr. Albornoz Balmaceda said that the activation of the inflammasome pathway caused a ‘fire’ in the brain, which starts a chronic and long-term process of killing neurons.
“It’s kind of a silent killer, because in many you don’t see any outward symptoms years,” said Dr. Albornoz Balmaceda.
“This may explain why some people who have had COVID-19 are more susceptible to developing Parkinson’s-like neurological symptoms.”
The researchers found that a spike in the virus’s protein was enough to start the process, and that it was further exacerbated when proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease were already present in the brain.
“So if someone already has a predisposition to Parkinson’s disease, having COVID-19 could be like adding more fuel to that ‘fire’ in the brain,” Professor Woodruff said.
“The same would be true for the predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias that are associated with inflammation.”
But the study also found a potential treatment.
The researchers used a class of inhibitory drugs developed by UQ that are currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients.
“We found that it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway that activated COVID-19, essentially putting out the fire,” said Dr. Albornoz Balmaceda.
“The drug reduced inflammation in both mice infected with COVID-19 and in human microglia cells, suggesting a possible treatment approach to prevent neurodegeneration in the future.”
Professor Woodruff said that while the similarity between the impact of COVID-19 and the disease dementia on the brain is worrying, it also means that a possible treatment already exists.
“Further research is needed, but this is a potentially novel approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health consequences.”
The study was published in the journal Nature’s Molecular psychiatry.
Image above left: A mouse brain infected with COVID-19 shows ‘angry’ microglia in green and SARS-CoV-2 in red.