COVID triggers brain inflammation like in Parkinson’s disease: Study

Scientists studied effect of the virus on the brain's immune cells, microglia which are the key cells involved in progression of brain diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The study showed it activated a similar inflammatory response in the brain

COVID-19, brain inflammation, Parkinson's disease
Though the similarity between how COVID-19 and dementia diseases affect the brain was concerning, the study also suggested a possible treatment is also in existence

Scientists have found in a study that COVID-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease.

The study conducted by a University of Queensland-led research team, has identified a potential future risk for neurodegenerative conditions in people who have had COVID-19. However, the study, which is published in Nature’s Molecular Psychiatry, has also suggested a possible treatment.

“We studied the effect of the virus on the brain’s immune cells, microglia which are the key cells involved in the progression of brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” said lead author of the study Professor Woodruff.

“Our team grew human microglia in the laboratory and infected the cells with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. We found the cells effectively became angry, activating the same pathway that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s proteins can activate in disease, the inflammasomes,” he explained.

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Dr Albornoz Balmaceda, co-author of the study said triggering the inflammasome pathway sparked a fire in the brain, which begins a chronic and sustained process of killing off neurons. “It is kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years,” added Dr Balmaceda.

“It may explain why some people who have had COVID-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease,” he pointed out.

The researchers found the spike protein of the virus was enough to start the process and was further exacerbated when there were already proteins in the brain linked to Parkinson’s disease.

“So, if someone is already pre-disposed to Parkinson’s, having COVID-19 could be like pouring more fuel on that fire in the brain,” said Professor Woodruff, adding that the same would apply for a predisposition for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that have been linked to inflammasomes.

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A potential treatment

But the study had also found a potential treatment. The researchers administered a class of UQ-developed inhibitory drugs which are currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients.

“We found it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by COVID-19, essentially putting out the fire,” said Dr Albornoz Balmaceda. “The drug reduced inflammation in both COVID-19-infected mice and the microglia cells from humans, suggesting a possible treatment approach to prevent neurodegeneration in the future,” he said.

Professor Woodruff said while the similarity between how COVID-19 and dementia diseases affect the brain was concerning, it also meant a possible treatment was already in existence. “Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications,” he added.

The UQ team was led by Professor Trent Woodruff and Dr Eduardo Albornoz Balmaceda from UQs School of Biomedical Sciences, and virologists from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences.

(With Agency inputs)

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