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Taking a Closer Look at COVID-19’s Effects on the Brain

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MRI of a brain damaged by COVID-19
Caption: Magnetic resonance microscopy showing lower part of a COVID-19 patient’s brain stem postmortem. Arrows point to light and dark spots indicative of blood vessel damage with no signs of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH

While primarily a respiratory disease, COVID-19 can also lead to neurological problems. The first of these symptoms might be the loss of smell and taste, while some people also may later battle headaches, debilitating fatigue, and trouble thinking clearly, sometimes referred to as “brain fog.” All of these symptoms have researchers wondering how exactly the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, affects the human brain.

In search of clues, researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have now conducted the first in-depth examinations of human brain tissue samples from people who died after contracting COVID-19. Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that COVID-19’s many neurological symptoms are likely explained by the body’s widespread inflammatory response to infection and associated blood vessel injury—not by infection of the brain tissue itself [1].

The NIH team, led by Avindra Nath, used a high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner (up to 10 times as sensitive as a typical MRI) to examine postmortem brain tissue from 19 patients. They ranged in age from 5 to 73, and some had preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
The team focused on the brain’s olfactory bulb that controls our ability to smell and the brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate. Based on earlier evidence, both areas are thought to be highly susceptible to COVID-19.

Indeed, the MRI images revealed in both regions an unusual number of bright spots, a sign of inflammation. They also showed dark spots, which indicate bleeding. A closer look at the bright spots showed that tiny blood vessels in those areas were thinner than normal and, in some cases, leaked blood proteins into the brain. This leakage appeared to trigger an immune reaction that included T cells from the blood and the brain’s scavenging microglia. The dark spots showed a different pattern, with leaky vessels and clots but no evidence of an immune reaction.

While those findings are certainly interesting, perhaps equally noteworthy is what Nath and colleagues didn’t see in those samples. They could find no evidence in the brain tissue samples that SARS-CoV-2 had invaded the brain tissue. In fact, several methods to detect genetic material or proteins from the virus all turned up empty.

The findings are especially intriguing because there has been some suggestion based on studies in mice that SARS-CoV-2 might cross the blood-brain barrier and invade the brain. Indeed, a recent report by NIH-funded researchers in Nature Neuroscience showed that the viral spike protein, when injected into mice, readily entered the brain along with many other organs [2].

Another recent report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which used mouse and human brain tissue, suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may indeed directly infect the central nervous system, including the brain [3]. In autopsies of three people who died from complications of COVID-19, the NIH-supported researchers detected signs of SARS-CoV-2 in neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex. This work was done using the microscopy-based technique of immunohistochemistry, which uses antibodies to bind to a target, in this case, the virus’s spike protein. Also last month, in a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, another NIH-supported team demonstrated in a series of experiments in cell culture that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could cross a 3D model of the blood-brain barrier and infect the endothelial cells that line blood vessels in the brain [4].

Clearly, more research is needed, and Nath and colleagues continue to explore how COVID-19 affects the brain and triggers the neurological symptoms often seen in people with COVID-19. As we learn more about the many ways COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the body, understanding the neurological symptoms will be critical in helping people, including the so-called Long Haulers bounce back from this terrible viral infection.


[1] Microvascular Injury in the Brains of Patients with Covid-19. Lee MH, Perl DP, Nair G, Li W, Maric D, Murray H, Dodd SJ, Koretsky AP, Watts JA, Cheung V, Masliah E, Horkayne-Szakaly I, Jones R, Stram MN, Moncur J, Hefti M, Folkerth RD, Nath A. N Engl J Med. 2020 Dec 30.

[2] The S1 protein of SARS-CoV-2 crosses the blood-brain barrier in mice. Rhea EM, Logsdon AF, Hansen KM, Williams LM, Reed MJ, Baumann KK, Holden SJ, Raber J, Banks WA, Erickson MA. Nat Neurosci. 2020 Dec 16.

[3] Neuroinvasion of SARS-CoV-2 in human and mouse brain. Song E, Zhang C, Israelow B, et al. J Exp Med (2021) 218 (3): e20202135.

[4] The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alters barrier function in 2D static and 3D microfluidic in-vitro models of the human blood-brain barrier. Buzhdygan TP, DeOre BJ, Baldwin-Leclair A, Bullock TA, McGary HM, Khan JA, Razmpour R, Hale JF, Galie PA, Potula R, Andrews AM, Ramirez SH. Neurobiol Dis. 2020 Dec;146:105131.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Avindra Nath (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Mental Health

Snapshots of Life: Making the Brain Transparent

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Brain webs

Credit: Ken Chan and Viviana Gradinaru Group, Caltech

What you are looking at above is something scientists couldn’t even dream of imaging less than a decade ago: bundles of neurons in the brainstem of an adult mouse. These bundles are randomly labeled with various colors that enable researchers to trace the course of each as it projects from the brainstem areas to other parts of the brain. Until recently, such a view would have been impossible because, like other organs, the brain is opaque and had to be sliced into thin, transparent sections of tissue to be examined under a light microscope. These sections forced a complex 3D structure to be visualized in 2D, losing critical detail about the connections.

But now, researchers have developed innovative approaches to make organs and other large volumes of tissue transparent when viewed with standard light microscopy [1]. This particular image was made using the Passive CLARITY Technique, or PACT, developed by the NIH-supported lab of Viviana Gradinaru at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. Gradinaru has been working on turning tissues transparent since 2010, starting as a graduate student in the lab of CLARITY developer and bioengineering pioneer Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University. PACT is her latest refinement of the concept.