COVID can cause permanent brain damage — even in mild cases

“The results were clear and profound, and undoubtedly a result of the infection,” warn the study’s authors

NEW ORLEANS — COVID-19 began as a serious lung threat but has become synonymous with brain problems during the pandemic. Now a new study reveals exactly how the virus damages the central nervous system. Tulane University researchers say even mild COVID infection can leave permanent damage in a patient’s brain.

Previous studies have documented multiple cognitive problems such as headaches, and confusion “brain fog” during the infection of a COVID patient and in the following months – as a symptom of a long COVID. So far, however, scientists have not fully understood how the disease targets the brain.

The new study found severe brain inflammation and injury resulting from decreased blood flow, or oxygen delivery, to the brain. These included neuron damage and cell death. The team also discovered microbleeds (small bleeds) in the brains of non-human primates that died after being infected with coronavirus.

To the research team’s surprise, even primates that didn’t suffer from severe respiratory disease showed the same damage in the brain.

“Because the subjects had no significant respiratory symptoms, nobody expected that they would have the severity of the disease that we found in the brain,” says lead researcher Tracy Fischer in a university clearance. “But the results were clear and profound, and undoubtedly a result of the infection.”

COVID brain damage can lead to a more severe infection

Fischer has been studying brains for decades. After Tulane’s National Primate Research Center launched a COVID pilot program in early 2020, the study author began examining the brain tissue of several animals infected with coronavirus.

Fischer’s initial findings were so shocking that she spent the next year refining the results to make sure COVID-19 was really to blame severe brain damage. Worryingly, these new findings are consistent with those obtained from human autopsies during the pandemic.

Study authors say this suggests nonhuman primates can serve as a reliable model as scientists continue to study how COVID-19 harms the human body.

The team also notes that neurological problems are some of the first symptoms people experience during a COVID infection. These symptoms also have an impact patients of all ages, whether they have previous illnesses or not.

Researchers say the brain plays an important role in controlling a person’s respiratory system – a key target of COVID.

“Neuropathy complications can contribute to disease worsening in infected patients. For example, damage to the brainstem, which modulates the respiratory cycle by regulating inspiratory and expiratory muscle activity, may contribute to worsening respiratory distress and failure in patients with COVID-19,” the researchers write in the journal nature communication.

Leave a Comment