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Covid-19 could trigger inflammation in the brain

A team of researchers led by the University of Queensland (UQ) in Australia has found that Covid-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. The experts studied the effect of SARS-CoV-2 on the “microglia” – the brain’s immune cells, which play a fundamental role in the development of age-related neurodegenerative disorders.

“Our team grew human microglia in the laboratory and infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19,” said study senior author Trent Woodruff, a professor of Pharmacology at UQ. “We found the cells effectively became ‘angry,’ activating the same pathway that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s proteins can activate in disease, the inflammasomes.”

According to study lead author Eduardo Albornoz – a postdoctoral fellow in Neuroscience, Immunology, and Pharmacology at the same university – triggering the inflammasome pathway can spark a “fire” in the brain that begins a chronic and sustained process of killing off neurons.

“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.”

The scientists discovered that the spike protein of the virus was enough to start this process, which was further exacerbated when the brain already contained proteins linked to Parkinson’s disease. Thus, if someone is already pre-disposed to Parkinson’s, getting infected with the new coronavirus “could be like pouring more fuel on that “fire” in the brain,” according to Professor Woodruff.

Fortunately, the scientists also discovered a potential treatment – a class of UQ-developed inhibitory drugs that are currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients. “We found it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by Covid-19, essentially putting out the fire,” Dr. Albornoz 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.”

“Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications,” Professor Woodruff concluded.

The study is published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.   

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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