The Way COVID Harms the Brain


Brain scans from July 2020 of coronavirus patients showing neurological damage, as serious as nerve damage in some cases. (Oxford University Press)

Bella Rock, Social Media Editor

Whilst COVID-19 has taken center stage in our lives, there’s still so much that remains unknown about this deadly disease. COVID-19 is commonly acknowledged for its attacks on our respiratory system, but many patients also suffer neurological symptoms, i.e. headaches, delirium, and confusion. “Forty to sixty percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients have exhibited neurological and/or psychiatric symptoms,” as reported by John Hopkins University neurologist, Dr. Robert Stevens. This has led many doctors to believe that COVID-19 also damages the brain.

Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, observed that there seems to be a rapid diminish in the number of synapses, a structure in the brain that allows neurotransmissions and connections in COVID-19 patients. 

Other pathogens, for example the Zika virus, cause damage to the brain cells. Immune cells then rush to the damaged area to destroy the infected brain cells. However, if COVID-19 truly does impact our brains, it does so in a much stealthier way, allowing it to go undetected and therefore unmanaged by the immune cells.

Scientists speculate that COVID-19 invades the brain cells, leading to the cells making copies of itself. Furthermore, to keep immune cells from flooding the infected area to destroy the damaged cells, it manages to choke off the oxygen of surrounding cells. This kills off these healthy cells, so they cannot come in to minimize the damage.

A study conducted by Yale University immunologist Akiko Iwaski offers large amounts of evidence suggesting that COVID-19 does in fact have a negative impact on the brain. 

Dr. Iwaski conducted her study using three methods, the brain tissue of an individual who passed away as a result of the virus, a mouse-based model, and organoids – clusters of brain cells to mimic the brain’s structure. Dr. Iwaski’s study seemed to reinforce the idea that COVID-19 finds a way to get into and damage the brain undetected, with Iwaski stating, 

“It’s kind of a silent infection. This virus has a lot of evasion mechanisms.” 

This begs the question of, if the virus does truly infect the brain, what are the long term damages that can be done? Dr. Michael Zandi, consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Britain, and several colleagues ran studies finding that nerve damage is a serious neurological complication found in some patients suffering from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, with these developments being recent, specialists are not yet sure if there will be ways to reverse the brain damage that potentially comes with COVID-19. However, if the virus does impact the brain, said infections are likely to be rare according to officials. 

However, vast amounts of uncharted waters come with COVID-19. As a result, some specialists suggest that these neurological symptoms are a result of inflammation throughout the body, not COVID-19 attacking the brain. 

All in all, this research goes to show how much remains undiscovered about the virus and its effects. This deadly disease has many layers to it, many of which have yet to be discovered.