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Effects of COVID-19 on brain laid bare

In the first study of its kind, a primate model shows the impact of the virus on the brain, even when people did not have a severe strain



A new study has shown the effect of COVID-19 on the brain and central nervous system, based – for the first time – on a primate model. 

In the first piece of research of its kind, researchers at Tulane University found severe brain inflammation and injury consistent with reduced blood flow or oxygen to the brain, including neuron damage and death. They also found small bleeds in the brain.

Surprisingly, this was also present in subjects that did not experience severe respiratory disease from the virus.

The findings are the first comprehensive assessment of neuropathology associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection in a non-human primate model.

Dr Tracy Fischer, lead investigator and associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, began studying the brain tissue of subjects who had been infected after the centre launched its COVID-19 pilot programme in spring 2020. 

Dr Tracy Fischer

Dr Fischer’s initial findings documenting the extent of damage seen in the brain due to SARS-CoV-2 infection were so striking that she spent the next year further refining the study controls to ensure that the results were clearly attributable to the infection.

“Because the subjects didn’t experience significant respiratory symptoms, no one expected them to have the severity of disease that we found in the brain,” Dr Fischer said. 

“But the findings were distinct and profound, and undeniably a result of the infection.”

The findings are also consistent with autopsy studies of people who have died of COVID-19, suggesting that non-human primates may serve as an appropriate model, or proxy, for how humans experience the disease.

Neurological complications are often among the first symptoms of SARS-CoV-2 infection and can be the most severe and persistent. 

They also affect people indiscriminately —all ages, with and without co-morbidities, and with varying degrees of disease severity.

Dr Fischer hopes that this and future studies that investigate how SARS-CoV-2 affects the brain will contribute to the understanding and treatment of patients suffering from the neurological consequences of COVID-19 and Long COVID.