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Imaging shows COVID-19 damage to brain

Groundbreaking new MRI technique reveals change to white matter through virus

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A new imaging technique is helping to shed new light on COVID-19’s impact on the brain, highlighting the change to the white matter. 

A technique known as correlated diffusion imaging (CDI) shows the alterations to the human brain as a result of the virus, through its ability to highlight the differences in the way water molecules move in tissue by capturing and mixing MRI signals at different gradient pulse strengths and timings.

The CDI imaging of frontal lobe white matter revealed a less restricted diffusion of water molecules in COVID patients. At the same time, it showed a more restricted diffusion of water molecules in the cerebellum of patients with COVID.

The study is one of the few to have shown COVID’s effects on the brain, and it is the first to report diffusion abnormalities in the white matter of the cerebellum. 

Although the study was designed to show changes, rather than specific damage, to the brain from COVID, its final report does discuss potential sources of such changes and many link to disease and damage.

“Some may think COVID-19 affects just the lungs,” said Dr Alexander Wong, a professor at the University of Waterloo who developed CDI. 

“What was found is that this new MRI technique that we created is very good at identifying changes to the brain due to COVID-19. COVID-19 changes the white matter in the brain.”

The study, from scientists at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, came after seeing Dr Wong’s imaging discovery and wanting to use its potential to identify changes to the brain due to COVID.

Dr Wong highlights that the two regions of the brain react differently to COVID and points to two key findings from the research. 

First, the human cerebellum might be more vulnerable to COVID infections. Second, the study reinforces the idea that COVID infections can lead to changes in the brain.

Although the study was designed to show changes, rather than specific damage, to the brain from COVID-19, its final report does discuss potential sources of such changes and many link to disease and damage.

In response, Dr Wong suggests future tests could focus on whether COVID actually damages brain tissue. Additional studies could also determine if COVID can change the brain’s grey matter.

“Hopefully, this research can lead to better diagnoses and treatments for COVID-19 patients,” Dr Wong said. 

“And that could just be the beginning for CDI as it might be used to understand degenerative processes in other diseases such as Alzheimer’s or to detect breast or prostate cancers.”

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