As a respiratory virus, COVID-19 predominately targets the lungs and kidneys but a new study is offering evidence that the virus also invades brain cells and about half of patients report neurological symptoms, including headaches, confusion and delirium. The study has not yet been peer reviewed for publication, but several researchers say it provides compelling evidence that COVID-19 could infect the brain in some patients.
Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, led the study documenting brain infection in three ways: in brain tissue from a person who died of COVID-19, in a mouse model and in organoids, which are clusters of brain cells in a lab dish meant to replicate the brain’s three-dimensional structure. Their work shows that the coronavirus acts in a stealthier manner than many other viruses known to infect the brain – it chokes off oxygen to cells in the brain, causing them to die without provoking a typical immune response.
“It’s kind of a silent infection” — Dr. Iwasaki, Yale
The virus has a lot of evasion mechanisms, Iwasaki said. Researchers will need to analyze many more autopsy samples to estimate how common brain infection is and whether it is present in people with a milder presentation of the virus or in so-called long-haulers, those who have lingering symptoms for months, and many of whom have multiple neurological symptoms. 40-60% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients experience neurological and psychiatric symptoms, said Dr. Robert Stevens, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins University. But these symptoms are not necessarily due to brain infection; they may be the result of pervasive inflammation throughout the body.
Paranoia, Anxiety, Depression
More research needs to be done, but this new study highlights even more dangerous, potentially long-term effects of COVID-19. Countless interviews with COVID-19 survivors have shown that many struggle with physical and mental health problems long after the virus has left their body. They suffer from depression, anxiety, even paranoia, as they try to recover and get back to their normal health levels. Many who haven’t contracted the virus or experienced physical symptoms are still struggling with the mental health effects of an ongoing epidemic with no end in sight.