How COVID-19 Worms Its Way Into the Brain – Explaining Baffling Neurological Symptoms

Brain Disease Concept

Study helps explain baffling neurological symptoms — and why they’re so unpredictable.

New research offers an up-close view of how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can spread to the brain. The study helps explain the alarming array of neurological symptoms reported in some patients with COVID-19, as well as why some patients suffer severe neurological effects while others experience none at all.

The researchers report evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect both the nerve cells that power our brains (neurons) and the cells in the brain and spinal cord that support and protect neurons (astrocytes).

Astrocyte Displaying Expression of the SARS-CoV-2 Receptor Protein

A single astrocyte displaying expression of the SARS-CoV-2 receptor protein ACE2 in red. Credit: Ricardo Costa, LSUHS

“Our findings suggest that astrocytes are a pathway through which COVID-19 causes neurological damage,” said Ricardo Costa, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Shreveport and the study’s first author. “This could explain many of the neurologic symptoms we see in COVID-19 patients, which include loss of sense of smell and taste, disorientation, psychosis, and stroke.”

Costa will present the research at the American Physiological Society annual meeting during the Experimental Biology (EB) 2021 meeting, held virtually April 27-30. The study is led by Diana Cruz-Topete, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at LSU Health Shreveport, and includes collaborators Oscar Gomez-Torres, PhD, and Emma Burgos-Ramos, PhD, from Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Spain.

Neurons and Dendrites

A group of neurons (blue) and the dendrites that connect them (green). The ACE2 receptor (in red) is present in the neuronal main body. Credit: Ricardo Costa, LSUHS; original cells donated by Lynn Harrison, LSUHS

In the respiratory system, SARS-CoV-2 is known to infect a person’s cells by grabbing hold of proteins on the cell surface called angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) receptors. It has been unclear whether brain cells have this receptor.

For the study, Costa and colleagues examined RNA and proteins to determine whether cell cultures of human astrocytes and neurons expressed ACE2. They then exposed the cells to a version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that had been modified to be safe for researchers to handle. The studies confirmed that both astrocytes and neurons express the ACE2 receptor and that both cell types can become infected with SARS-CoV-2, though astrocytes were less likely to become infected.

Astrocyte Infected With Modified SARS-CoV-2

A single astrocyte infected with a modified version of SARS-CoV-2. The virus was modified to express a green fluorescent protein upon successful infection. Nearby astrocytes (not visible) were not infected. Credit: Ricardo Costa, LSUHS

Astrocytes are the main gateway to the brain, responsible for shuttling nutrients from the bloodstream to the neurons while keeping harmful particles out. By resisting infection, astrocytes could help keep SARS-CoV-2 out of the brain, but once infected, they could easily pass the virus along to many neurons, according to researchers.

“While astrocytes display a higher resistance to infection, neurons seem to be more susceptible,” said Costa. “This suggests that only few astrocytes getting infected could be sufficient for the infection to quickly spread to neurons and multiply quickly. These observations could explain why while some patients do not have any neurological symptoms, others seem to have severe ones.”

Meeting: Experimental Biology 2021

8 Comments on "How COVID-19 Worms Its Way Into the Brain – Explaining Baffling Neurological Symptoms"

  1. Desi J Richert | April 27, 2021 at 3:17 pm | Reply

    Wow some government did a great job of engineering this little baby. Who knows maybe in a few years it’ll be able to sterilize the entire population!

  2. Bill Ruggles | April 28, 2021 at 7:09 am | Reply

    No one would design a virus like this. It would be designing a weapon if mass destruction against your own people. This virus is unique in reaching maximum levels of infection before symptoms show up. Its bypassed a evolutionary restraint. Usually virus evolve to become less deadly and more infectious. This one is evolving to become more infectious and more deadly. Meaning we really need to take every step to get this under control sooner instead of later.

  3. Rudolph Serrano | April 28, 2021 at 7:48 am | Reply

    I took the First Moderna vaccine. And almost got fully sterile for the whole month.
    I think this is a new route to brain research. We know only rabies virus can penetrate the brain.
    The truth question here should be.
    Do Covid 19 share RNA with the rabies virus.

  4. Makes sense, viruses are sneaky. Sterilization? What a load of crap.

  5. This Could explain why 5 months later I still cannot smell or taste most things.

  6. some thoughts:
    If what they are thinking is true how would any shot from anyone cure those of us with long COVID? Is it possible for any of these to gain access to the brain to neutralize the COVID there? And if so what kind of side effects could occur if Pfizer, Moderna, etc have access to the brain?

    If those of us with COVID brain can never be cured because of where it is and our bodies continuously generate antibodies to fight it would we ever really need a shot to protect against COVID? Could we be continuously Immune to infection due to the state in which we survive.
    I by no means to say that I am suffering. Yes I cannot taste nor smell most things but beyond that COVID has done nothing else and there are people far worse off than I. Yet this falls into the randomness of COVID symptoms and effects. Would trying to “fix” those if us with extended effects cause more harm than trying to live (depending on severity) with what has happened?

  7. The only ones with the fake Covid 19 virus entering their brains are the liars decieving the whole world with it. And the dumbed downed masses letting it enter their brain through psychological manipulation.

  8. How is it possible that this virus can sterilize people? And I personally think the people involved in manipulating it to be more deadly and infectious should be held to account for lives lost all over the world. This has broader implications can it encode itself to the DNA of unborn children in expectant mother’s? And be genetically passed to her offspring? And what for the men?

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