Unraveling COVID-19 Brain Fog: New Study Pinpoints Immune Culprit

Vaccine Vial Needle Close Up

Research during the COVID-19 pandemic found that 10-30% of people experienced cognitive impairments like brain fog, which led to the discovery of a specific protein, Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), driving these changes. A study by Western and Washington University demonstrated that vaccination might reduce such cognitive symptoms by decreasing brain inflammation and IL-1β levels, showing promise for lessening memory loss impacts.

A new study identified a particular protein that seems to be responsible for memory loss linked to COVID-19.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, between 10 to 30 percent of the general population has suffered from some kind of cognitive impairment caused by the virus, such as difficulty concentrating, brain fog, or memory loss. This prompted a group of researchers to investigate the underlying mechanisms of these issues and identify a specific protein responsible for these cognitive achanges.

A new study published in Nature Immunology, led by researchers at the University of Western Ontario and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, also looked at how vaccination may help reduce the impacts of memory loss following COVID-19 infections.

The research team, including Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Dr. Robyn Klein, who joined Western from Washington University used rodent models to better understand how COVID-19 impacts cognitive impairment.

“We looked carefully at their brains during acute infection and then later after recovery to discover what was abnormal in terms of the different immune cells trafficking into the brain and their effects on neural cells,” said Klein, who holds the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Neurovirology and Neuroimmunology.

Robyn Klein

Dr. Robyn Klein. Credit: Mac Lai, Schulich Medicine & Dentistry

Klein said she was concerned by reports of cognitive impairment in the early days of the pandemic, which led researchers to question whether the virus was invading the central nervous system.  Klein’s previous work studied viruses that invade the brain.

“We had previously shown that the virus could not be detected in human or hamster brains, and this study also showed that the virus was not invading the central nervous system,” said Klein. The finding means some other mechanism is leading to cognitive impairment.

The team identified SARS-CoV-2 infection increased levels of brain Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β), a cytokine protein that impacts the immune system. The team observed that the models with increased levels of IL-1β experienced loss of neurogenesis, the process by which new neurons are formed in the brain, and also displayed memory loss.

Vaccination Reduces Cognitive Symptoms

The team concluded IL-1β was one potential mechanism driving SARS-CoV-2-induced cognitive impairment, and wondered whether this may be prevented by vaccination. Researchers then investigated how vaccinated models were impacted. They found a promising correlation between vaccination and reduced cognitive impairments like memory loss. The researchers showed that prior vaccination reduced inflammation of the brain and lowered levels of IL-1β. As a result, the vaccinated models experienced less of an impact on memory and brain function.

Klein says there is still more work to be done to fully understand how vaccinations are achieving this result, and whether it will translate to humans.

“We know there’s anecdotal evidence that humans who’ve been vaccinated have a much lower risk of developing this long COVID brain fog,” said Klein.

The vaccine used in the study is not the same as the vaccines available to people, Klein stressed, meaning more studies will need to be conducted to further investigate the connection between vaccination and reduced long COVID impacts.

“What we do know is that if you’re vaccinated you have much less inflammation,” said Klein.

Vaccination is about lowering the risk of the impacts of infection, not completely preventing infection, she added. For example, a vaccine can protect individuals from developing severe pneumonia, but that doesn’t mean it completely protects against pneumonia.

The same is likely true for cognitive impacts.

“People need to understand that about vaccines,” Klein said. “They need to know what vaccines can do and what they can’t do.”

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