A new study from the University of Queensland has found that being infected with COVID-19 can trigger a similar reaction in the brain to Parkinson’s disease – and they have identified a possible treatment to stop Covid’s impact on the brain in its tracks.
A growing number of reports have found that Covid affects more than just our lungs, with several studies finding up to 85 percent of people with Covid, including severe, mild and asymptomatic infections, have neurological complications from being infected with the virus.
This can show up in a variety of symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, confusion, seizures, and change in mood, including depression and anxiety.
The team of scientists has discovered that the virus can cause inflammation in the brain, which could make people more vulnerable to developing Parkinson’s and other similar conditions.
“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,” Professor Woodruff said.
“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 in disease, the inflammasomes.”
Inflammasomes are a kind of complex of proteins that activate inflammatory responses in the body.
Dr Albornoz Balmaceda, another of the 33 authors of the study published in Molecular Psychiatry, said that triggering this pathway can spark a “fire” in the brain that silently kills neurons over time in a similar way to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
“It’s kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years,” he said.
“It may explain why some people who’ve had COVID-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.”
They also found that the triggering of the inflammasome pathway was exacerbated in people who were already predisposed to developing Parkinson’s.
“So if someone is already predisposed to Parkinson’s, having COVID-19 could be like pouring more fuel on that ‘fire’ in the brain,” Professor Woodruff said.
“The same would apply for a predisposition for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that have been linked to inflammasomes.”
While the findings are concerning, the team has also found a potential treatment that could stop the inflammation and put out the “fire” in the brain.
Using inhibitory drugs developed at the University of Queensland currently being trialled with Parkinson’s patients, they found that inflammasome activation was reduced in comparison to no treatment at all.
“We found it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by COVID-19, essentially putting out the fire,” Dr Balmaceda said.
“The drug reduced inflammation in both COVID-19-infected mice and the microglia cells from humans, suggesting a possible treatment approach to prevent neurodegeneration in the future.”
As a result, Professor Woodruff said that it means that potential treatments for Covid’s impact on the brain already exist.
“Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications,” he said.
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This article first appeared on OverSixty.