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5 Jan, 2021 16:18

Researchers warn of brain damage from coronavirus infection after finding stroke-like complications in Covid victims

Researchers warn of brain damage from coronavirus infection after finding stroke-like complications in Covid victims

The coronavirus could cause severe brain damage due to the body’s inflammatory response to infection, new research claims. Recent scans found bleeding in brain regions associated with heart rate, breathing, and sense of smell.

Using a high-powered MRI scanner to examine the brains of deceased Covid patients, US researchers from the National Institute of Health (NIH) found damage to the olfactory bulb, an area that controls the sense of smell, and the brainstem, which controls breathing and heart rate.

Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, senior study author Dr Avindra Nath said the researchers found that the brains of Covid-19 patients “may be susceptible to microvascular blood vessel damage.”

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The team studied brain tissue from 19 people, aged five to 73, who had died from the coronavirus — some after a very short period, others after a couple of months. Many had underlying health conditions, such as diabetes or obesity. 

Nath, the clinical director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said the researchers were taken aback by what they found when studying the tissue samples, writing: “We were completely surprised.” 

Originally, we expected to see damage that is caused by a lack of oxygen. Instead, we saw multifocal areas of damage that is usually associated with strokes and neuroinflammatory diseases.

The researchers also detailed how some of their subjects had described symptoms of neurological distress before they had died, with all but one showing “microvascular injury” in their brain scans. The scans of 10 patients revealed stroke-like complications that “corresponded to congested blood vessels”.

The study, meanwhile, found no sign of coronavirus infection in the actual brain tissue, leading the scientists to conclude the damage found had resulted from “the body’s inflammatory response to the virus”. However, they added that it’s possible the virus had already been cleared from the brain by the time of death.

“So far, our results suggest that the damage we saw may not have been not caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus directly infecting the brain,” said Nath. “In the future, we plan to study how COVID-19 harms the brain’s blood vessels and whether that produces some of the short- and long-term symptoms we see in patients.”

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Coronavirus is typically associated with respiratory complications, but the NIH team’s findings could help explain neurological symptoms suffered by many Covid patients, ranging from migraines and a loss of the sense of smell, to severe cognitive dysfunction. 

Brain damage was also found in autopsies of those who succumbed to the Spanish flu in the early part of the 20th Century. Some of those infected with the influenza that killed an estimated 50 million people showed signs of brain swelling, or viral encephalitis, when the flu virus entered the central nervous system. Others who survived went on to develop viral Parkinsonism for the rest of their lives. 

It is not yet known if coronavirus can enter the central nervous system. However, neurological complications are higher than expected in coronavirus patients. A recent study by scientists from the University College London analyzed 43 patients, aged 16 to 85, with 10 of those showing brain dysfunction, including delirium or psychosis.

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