COVID-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease – increasing the risk of future potential neurodegenerative conditions

Research led by The University of Queensland uncovered a novel discovery about COVID-19 causing brain inflammation, identifying a potential future risk for neurodegenerative conditions in people who have had COVID-19.

Professor Woodruff said: “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. 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.”

The inflammasome pathway sparked a ‘fire’ in the brain

The spike protein of the COVID-19 virus was enough to start the process of brain inflammation and could be further exacerbated when there were already proteins in the brain linked to Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Albornoz Balmaceda said triggering the inflammasome pathway sparked a ‘fire’ in the brain, which begins a chronic and sustained process of killing off neurons. He stated that “It’s kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years.

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

“People who’ve had COVID-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.

Professor Woodruff added: “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. The same would apply for a predisposition for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that have been linked to inflammasomes.”

Is there a treatment for this brain inflammation?

To see if there was a solution to this potential condition, the researchers administered a class of UQ-developed inhibitory drugs which are currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients.

These drugs may work for inflammation as there is a similarity between how COVID-19 and dementia diseases affect the brain – which implies a possible treatment is already in existence.

Dr Albornoz Balmaceda said: “We found it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by COVID-19, essentially putting out the fire.”

“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.”

Professor Woodruff finalised: “Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications.”


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