A joint research team of the Institute of Forensic Medicine, the Institute of Medical Microbiology, Virology and Hygiene and the Clinic and Polyclinic for Neurology at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) examined 43 deceased persons infected with SARS-CoV-2 in order to gain deeper insights into COVID-19. Their results were recently presented in the renowned journal “The Lancet Neurology”.
The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can infect the brain and cause indirect damage there. SARS-CoV-2 could be detected in the brain of about every second person who died from COVID-19 in a recent German study. However, the health damage does not appear to be caused by the virus itself, but by the immune response to the virus.
According to the autopsy findings, SARS-CoV-2 triggers an immune response, which is a possible explanation for the neurological symptoms that can occur during COVID-19 disease. The research group of Professor Dr. Markus Glatzel could detect the corona virus in the brain in 21 of 43 cases. According to the researchers, the brain must be one of the organs that can potentially be affected by SARS-CoV-2.
The team found viral proteins both in the brain stem and in the brain nerves that originate from the brain stem. Interestingly, however, the changes in the brain were independent of the viral load. Instead, the team attributed the brain damage to an immune response to the virus. The research group concludes that inflammatory cells in the brain could be involved in the development of the neurological symptoms.
SARS-CoV-2 can affect the brain
It has long been suspected that SARS-CoV-2 can damage the brain. So far, however, it was not known whether the pathogen itself attacks the brain and spreads there. “We have now been able to show that it is not the novel corona virus itself that damages the brain, but that the neurological symptoms are probably an indirect consequence of the virus infection,” said head of research Professor Dr. Glatzel in a press release on the autopsy reports.
“Of particular interest was the clear virus detection in individual cells and nerves, which indicates a localized proliferation and impairment of specific brain functions,” adds Professor Dr. Martin Aepfelbacher from the study team.
“In addition to complications in the lungs, heart and kidneys, COVID-19 can also cause neurological symptoms,” Glatzel explains. The range of such symptoms is wide and extends from diffuse symptoms of mild severity to serious strokes.
“Usually COVID-19 patients show a significantly altered immune response, especially in the blood,” adds study colleague Professor Dr. Marco Prinz. The joint research group was now also able to demonstrate a clear inflammatory reaction in the brain, which was not known to this extent.
COVID-19 can cause changes in the brain
The study examined 16 women and 27 men who died from COVID-19 disease. The patients were on average 76 years old and showed the typical pre-existing conditions that are often observed in COVID-19 deaths in Germany. The researchers point out that further investigations are necessary to clarify the causes of the neurological symptoms in COVID-19 so that suitable treatment options can be developed. (vb)
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