COVID-19 likely to impact the brain, San Antonio researchers find

Alzheimer’s Association is funding research to understand how COVID-19 could increase risk

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SAN ANTONIO – The coronavirus pandemic has plagued the planet for nearly a year and now researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio are studying how COVID-19 impacts the brain.

Dementia researchers at UT Health helped pen the report, including lead author Gabriel A. de Erausquin who said “Since the flu pandemic of 1917 and 1918, many of the flulike diseases have been associated with brain disorders.”

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According to de Erausquin, “those respiratory viruses included H1N1 and SARS-CoV. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, is also known to impact the brain and nervous system.”

Funding for this new research is being provided by the Alzheimer’s Association which is helping pool together data from more than 30 countries “to understand how COVID-19 increases the risk, severity, pace and progression of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and psychiatric diseases including depression,” a release from UT Health states.

The researchers have already found that the coronavirus enters cell receptors called ACE2, the highest concentration of which can be found in the olfactory bulb of the brain which is related to people’s sense of smell.

“Olfactory cells are very susceptible to viral invasion and are particularly targeted by SARS-CoV-2, and that’s why one of the prominent symptoms of COVID-19 is loss of smell,” said Sudha Seshadri, another researcher at UT Health.

The olfactory bulb connects with the brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for short-term memory primarily.

“The trail of the virus, when it invades the brain, leads almost straight to the hippocampus,” de Erausquin said. “That is believed to be one of the sources of the cognitive impairment observed in COVID-19 patients. We suspect it may also be part of the reason why there will be an accelerated cognitive decline over time in susceptible individuals.”

Researchers have also discovered that SARS-CoV-2 can be found in the brain after patients have died and that abnormal brain imaging, sometimes characterized by lesions in different areas of the brain, “has emerged as a major feature of COVID-19 from all parts of the world.”

UT Health officials said researchers will continue to collect information over the next 2-3 years and are expecting initial results in early 2022. The World Health Organization is also helping guide the study.

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