COVID-19 Story Tip: Does COVID-19 Affect the Brain?
As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, the impact on the human body may be far wider than only the damage it causes in the lungs. One area of particular concern among researchers is the virus’s potential impact on the brain.
Among the first symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of smell and taste, and there are reports of people in recovery struggling with cognitive impairment or stroke. According to researchers, these symptoms could be caused by neurons degenerating or damage to blood vessels that feed the brain.
“We need to get an understanding of how brain cells are affected by COVID-19, which cells are affected and how we can slow the damage,” says Valina Dawson, Ph.D., director of the neuroregeneration and stem cell programs at Johns Hopkins’ Institute for Cell Engineering.
Dawson plans to study cells in the nervous system that may be susceptible to damage from the virus. The Johns Hopkins team will start with the basic question of which cell types are affected by the coronavirus, looking at neurons as well as supportive cells in the brain called glia and microglia, and the brain’s blood cells. Then, the team aims to use human stem cells to create “minibrains” in the laboratory that replicate how COVID-19 infections may affect the human brain.
“If we know how the disease progresses and in which brain cells, we can help inform future treatments,” says Dawson.
A second facet of the study will look at the long-term outlook for COVID-19 patients. Dawson aims to collaborate with pathology experts to examine the proteins in the brains of people who succumbed to COVID-19 — proteins such as tau and alpha synuclein —that are susceptible to misfolding. This trait causes them to aggregate in the brain, leading to damage to the surrounding tissues. These are the same proteins Dawson believes are responsible for the progression of neurodegenerative disease including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and amytropic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
Dawson suspects that the stress of a coronavirus infection on a person’s brain could drive these proteins to accumulate more quickly.
“We want to know if we could potentially face a tsunami of increased neurodegenerative disease onset among COVID-19 survivors,” says Dawson.
Dawson is available to discuss her research.
For information from Johns Hopkins Medicine about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the coronavirus information page. For information on the coronavirus from throughout the Johns Hopkins enterprise, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Johns Hopkins University, visit the coronavirus resource center.