Researchers at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) found the new coronavirus in the brains of patients killed by the disease, in addition to morphological changes – which refer to shape and structure – in the brains of people with moderate Covid-19 conditions. The result should help with more effective treatments for Covid-19 patients who have neurological symptoms, such as anosmia, mental confusion, seizures and ringing in the ear.
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“What we have identified now is that the virus is capable of reaching the central nervous system, the brain. Not only did we detect the virus in the brains of people who died with Covid-19 – we collected their brains post mortem – but we also did image analysis, scanned the brains of patients with moderate Covid-19 and significant changes were observed ”, said Unicamp’s biochemistry professor, Daniel Martins-de-Souza, research coordinator. The study was released this week, on a preprint platform, still without peer review.
He points out that so far there is no evidence of this in the literature, although some patients have neurological symptoms. “This is a study done with hundreds of moderate patients, they are not even serious patients, and it shows that the morphological changes are correlated with Covid-19,” he said. According to him, the consequences on patients are still being observed because Covid-19 is a new disease. “There was no time to see what will happen in the long run, but the fact is that people who are already cured still have complaints of neurological symptoms even after the virus has already left the body.”
The researchers had already proven in in vitro tests that the new coronavirus was capable of infecting neurons. However, in human tests, they identified the presence of the virus in another brain cell, called an astrocyte.
“We saw that the virus is in the brains of some of the people who died from Covid-19, not so much in neurons, but in another cell called an astrocyte. This is a cell that helps neurons communicate. In the laboratory, we did an experiment showing that infected astrocytes can produce substances that kill neurons and this could be the cause of us seeing those changes in brain images [de pessoas vivas infectadas]”, He explained.
The researcher says that this information is the first clue for more effective treatments, especially for those patients who have had neurological disorders. “Not everyone will have [sintomas neurológicos], an average of 30% to 35% are those who have these symptoms. For them, it is good to know that the symptoms may be due to infection in the brain ”.
Martins-de-Souza explained that what was believed until now is that the neurological symptoms were caused only by a systemic infection. “It was thought until now that neurological symptoms were a consequence of inflammation in other places – like the lung – and that it affected the brain secondarily. But here we see that this [sintomas neurológicos] it can also happen because the virus does reach the brain, ”he said.
In addition to these results, the researchers will continue their investigations to better understand the role of viruses within astrocytes, the long-term consequences of this, as well as a question that Martins-de-Souza considers essential: how does the virus reach the brain.