Authors: Michael Marshall
How COVID-19 damages the brain is becoming clearer. New evidence suggests that the coronavirus’s assault on the brain could be multipronged: it might attack certain brain cells directly, reduce blood flow to brain tissue or trigger production of immune molecules that can harm brain cells.
Infection with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 can cause memory loss, strokes and other effects on the brain. The question, says Serena Spudich, a neurologist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is: “Can we intervene early to address these abnormalities so that people don’t have long-term problems?”
With so many people affected — neurological symptoms appeared in 80% of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 who were surveyed in one study1 — researchers hope that the growing evidence base will point the way to better treatments.
Breaking into the brain
SARS-CoV-2 can have severe effects: a preprint posted last month2 compared images of people’s brains from before and after they had COVID-19, and found loss of grey matter in several areas of the cerebral cortex. (Preprints are published without peer review.)
Early in the pandemic, researchers speculated that the virus might cause damage by somehow entering the brain and infecting neurons, the cells responsible for transmitting and processing information. But studies have since indicated3 that the virus has difficulty getting past the brain’s defence system — the blood–brain barrier — and that it doesn’t necessarily attack neurons in any significant way.