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Quebec researchers have discovered how COVID affects the brain

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In some patients, the COVID virus, SARS-CoV-2, causes micro-lesions in the brain. Complications from this include confusion, memory loss and, in more severe cases, stroke.

Dr Ayman ElAli.

Dr Ayman ElAli

Photo: TurnedNews.com

A research team, led by Dr Ayman ElAli, looked into the question in order to uncover the mechanism at play.

A good proportion of these neurological problems are caused by dysfunction of the vascular system. Brain vessels become dysfunctional, he explains.

The researchers performed a series of tests under conditions mimicking symptoms of a severe COVID-19 infection.

Image showing SARS-CoV-2 growing on the surface of cells (in blue and pink) grown in the laboratory.

This image shows SARS-CoV-2 (in yellow), the virus that causes COVID-19, growing on the surfaces of cells (in blue and pink) grown in the lab (archived).

Photo: NIAID-RML

S protein

The mechanism responsible for these neurological complications is thought to be closely linked to the S protein of the COVID-19 virus, the scientists have established.

The researchers therefore exposed vascular cells to this protein in the laboratory.

It has been found that it induces radical changes in the cells. It makes them very inflamed and dysfunctional, emphasizes Dr ElAli.

Oxygen

Researchers have also observed that when oxygen supply is reduced, the effects of protein S on brain cells are amplified.

This is what happens with a severe infection with COVID-19, especially in patients with vascular risk factors, including obesity, diabetes or hypertension. This increases the risk of microlesions which can lead to neurological problems, underlines the researcher at the Research Center of the CHU de Québec-Université Laval.

Lesions in asymptomatic patients

It’s not just those most at risk for complications who can develop brain problems.

Our study suggests that some asymptomatic people may have these microlesions in the brain. Over time, this could lead to much more serious problems., says Dr ElAli.

Towards a treatment

The researchers will now analyze the impacts of mutations in the virus on their discovery and, above all, try to find a molecule that would treat the brain effects of COVID.

One possibility would be to locally neutralize the interaction between the S protein, which is found in the virus, and vascular receptors. It could be a promising avenue to prevent or reduce complications attributable to the COVID-19 virus, says the holder of the Canada Research Chair in Molecular and Cellular Neurovascular Interactions.

Details of this discovery have just been published in the December issue of the journal. Neurobiology of Disease.

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