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Covid-19 makes you feel sad and moody by depleting dopamine

A recent study has uncovered a potential biological reason for mood changes and cognitive symptoms experienced by some individuals after recovering from Covid-19

Researchers have found that the virus can infect brain cells related to mood, stress, and movement, leading to a disruption in dopamine production. This discovery offers insight into why Covid-19 can cause symptoms such as brain fog and feelings of sadness.

How the research was conducted 

The research, conducted by a team from Weill Cornell Medicine, Columbia University, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, utilized human stem cells to create various cell types found in the human body. This approach allowed them to study how SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for Covid-19, affects different cells. Their findings were further confirmed with autopsy samples from individuals infected with Covid.

Dopamine neurons 

Remarkably, the study found that only dopamine neurons were infected by Covid-19, leading to impaired functioning and the release of inflammatory chemical signals. 

Dr. Shuibing Chen of Weill Cornell Medicine, the senior author of the study, shared her surprise at these findings: “This project started out to investigate how various types of cells in different organs respond to SARS-CoV-2 infection… But the senescence pathway is only activated in dopamine neurons. This was a completely unexpected result.”

Biological aging

The study highlights the phenomenon of senescence, or biological aging, where cells gradually lose the ability to grow and divide. This process, now linked to Covid’s effect on dopamine neurons, could explain the onset of neurological symptoms in long Covid sufferers. 

The researchers discovered that about five percent of dopamine neurons can be infected, leading to senescence and inflammation.

Potential treatments 

Intriguingly, the study identified three medications – riluzole, metformin, and imatinib – which might protect dopamine neurons from Covid infection. These drugs, already approved by the Food and Drug Administration, offer a potential avenue for preventing Covid’s neurological impacts. Riluzole is typically used for Lou Gehrig’s Disease, metformin for diabetes, and imatinib for leukemia and other cancers.

Study implications 

However, the researchers note that not everyone exposed to Covid will experience damage to dopamine neurons. The risk of neurological complications varies based on factors like genetics and the severity of the disease. The team suggests further research with larger human populations to explore this issue more comprehensively.

Additionally, given that dopamine neuron senescence is a characteristic of Parkinson’s disease, the researchers recommend monitoring individuals with long Covid for an increased risk of developing Parkinson’s-related symptoms. This study, published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, offers vital insights into the neurological implications of Covid-19 and potential strategies for mitigating these effects.

Neurological symptoms of Covid-19 

COVID-19, primarily known as a respiratory illness, can also affect the nervous system, leading to a range of neurological symptoms. These symptoms vary widely among patients and can range from mild to severe.

Loss of smell

One of the most common neurological symptoms is a loss of taste and smell. This often occurs without a blocked nose and might be among the earliest signs of the virus. Headaches are also frequently reported, which can vary in intensity.


In some cases, patients experience dizziness or confusion. This is especially common in older adults or those with severe infections. There’s also evidence of more serious neurological complications like strokes, which occur due to blood clotting disorders. These strokes can lead to significant long-term disability.


Another concerning symptom is the onset of seizures in some patients, which can occur even in those without a prior history of seizures. Additionally, there are reports of peripheral nerve damage, manifesting as tingling or numbness in various body parts.

Brain inflammation 

Encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain, and meningitis, inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, have been observed, though they are less common. These conditions can lead to altered mental status and require immediate medical attention.

Brain fog

Post-COVID, some patients suffer from a condition known as “brain fog,” where they experience difficulties with concentration, memory, and carrying out daily activities. This can persist for weeks to months after recovery from the acute phase of the illness.

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