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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 NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has just launched the COVID-19 Neuro Databank/Biobank (NeuroCOVID) to collect more clinical information, primarily about COVID-19-related neurological symptoms, complications, and outcomes. Meanwhile, 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

New Study Points to Targetable Protective Factor in Alzheimer’s Disease

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Credit: gettyimages/Creatista

If you’ve spent time with individuals affected with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), you might have noticed that some people lose their memory and other cognitive skills more slowly than others. Why is that? New findings indicate that at least part of the answer may lie in differences in their immune responses.

Researchers have now found that slower loss of cognitive skills in people with AD correlates with higher levels of a protein that helps immune cells clear plaque-like cellular debris from the brain [1]. The efficiency of this clean-up process in the brain can be measured via fragments of the protein that shed into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This suggests that the protein, called TREM2, and the immune system as a whole, may be promising targets to help fight Alzheimer’s disease.

The findings come from an international research team led by Michael Ewers, Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany, and Christian Haass, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany and German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. The researchers got interested in TREM2 following the discovery several years ago that people carrying rare genetic variants for the protein were two to three times more likely to develop AD late in life.

Not much was previously known about TREM2, so this finding from a genome wide association study (GWAS) was a surprise. In the brain, it turns out that TREM2 proteins are primarily made by microglia. These scavenging immune cells help to keep the brain healthy, acting as a clean-up crew that clears cellular debris, including the plaque-like amyloid-beta that is a hallmark of AD.

In subsequent studies, Haass and colleagues showed in mouse models of AD that TREM2 helps to shift microglia into high gear for clearing amyloid plaques [2]. This animal work and that of others helped to strengthen the case that TREM2 may play an important role in AD. But what did these data mean for people with this devastating condition?

There had been some hints of a connection between TREM2 and the progression of AD in humans. In the study published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers took a deeper look by taking advantage of the NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).

ADNI began more than a decade ago to develop methods for early AD detection, intervention, and treatment. The initiative makes all its data freely available to AD researchers all around the world. That allowed Ewers, Haass, and colleagues to focus their attention on 385 older ADNI participants, both with and without AD, who had been followed for an average of four years.

Their primary hypothesis was that individuals with AD and evidence of higher TREM2 levels at the outset of the study would show over the years less change in their cognitive abilities and in the volume of their hippocampus, a portion of the brain important for learning and memory. And, indeed, that’s exactly what they found.

In individuals with comparable AD, whether mild cognitive impairment or dementia, those having higher levels of a TREM2 fragment in their CSF showed a slower decline in memory. Those with evidence of a higher ratio of TREM2 relative to the tau protein in their CSF also progressed more slowly from normal cognition to early signs of AD or from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia.

While it’s important to note that correlation isn’t causation, the findings suggest that treatments designed to boost TREM2 and the activation of microglia in the brain might hold promise for slowing the progression of AD in people. The challenge will be to determine when and how to target TREM2, and a great deal of research is now underway to make these discoveries.

Since its launch more than a decade ago, ADNI has made many important contributions to AD research. This new study is yet another fine example that should come as encouraging news to people with AD and their families.


[1] Increased soluble TREM2 in cerebrospinal fluid is associated with reduced cognitive and clinical decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Ewers M, Franzmeier N, Suárez-Calvet M, Morenas-Rodriguez E, Caballero MAA, Kleinberger G, Piccio L, Cruchaga C, Deming Y, Dichgans M, Trojanowski JQ, Shaw LM, Weiner MW, Haass C; Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Aug 28;11(507).

[2] Loss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE. Parhizkar S, Arzberger T, Brendel M, Kleinberger G, Deussing M, Focke C, Nuscher B, Xiong M, Ghasemigharagoz A, Katzmarski N, Krasemann S, Lichtenthaler SF, Müller SA, Colombo A, Monasor LS, Tahirovic S, Herms J, Willem M, Pettkus N, Butovsky O, Bartenstein P, Edbauer D, Rominger A, Ertürk A, Grathwohl SA, Neher JJ, Holtzman DM, Meyer-Luehmann M, Haass C. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Feb;22(2):191-204.


Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)

Ewers Lab (University Hospital Munich, Germany)

Haass Lab (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)

German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (Bonn)

Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research (Munich, Germany)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging

If I Only Had a Brain? Tissue Chips Predict Neurotoxicity

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Image of neurons, glial cells, and nuclei

Caption: 3D neural tissue chips contain neurons (green), glial cells (red), and nuclei (blue). To take this confocal micrograph, developing neural tissue was removed from a chip and placed on a glass-bottom Petri dish.
Credit: Michael Schwartz, Dept.  of Bioengineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A lot of time, money, and effort are devoted to developing new drugs. Yet only one of every 10 drug candidates entering human clinical trials successfully goes on to receive approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [1]. Many would-be drugs fall by the wayside because they prove toxic to the brain, liver, kidneys, or other organs—toxicity that, unfortunately, isn’t always detected in preclinical studies using mice, rats, or other animal models. That explains why scientists are working so hard to devise technologies that can do a better job of predicting early on which chemical compounds will be safe in humans.

As an important step in this direction, NIH-funded researchers at the Morgridge Institute for Research and University of Wisconsin-Madison have produced neural tissue chips with many features of a developing human brain. Each cultured 3D “organoid”—which sits comfortably in the bottom of a pea-sized well on a standard laboratory plate—comes complete with its very own neurons, support cells, blood vessels, and immune cells! As described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [2], this new tool is poised to predict earlier, faster, and less expensively which new or untested compounds—be they drug candidates or even ingredients in cosmetics and pesticides—might harm the brain, particularly at the earliest stages of development.