How the brain can be affected by COVID-19

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Nature reveals that a severe COVID-19 infection can age the brain in a big way. MRIs and tissue samples from the brains of 30-year-olds killed by the virus were more consistent in structure and chemical function with those of 70-year-olds.

William Culbert
William Culbert

After a severe case of COVID-19, the virus may continue to reproduce in some organs for several months, but very little evidence of viral products may be seen in the blood stream. This may suggest that the virus can become disseminated by more direct pathways. For example, an infection of the brain might result from direct migration of the virus from the mucus membranes of the nose.

Animal studies with an experimental COVID-19 nasal vaccine show it to be unusually effective, especially when given two weeks following the traditional intramuscular vaccine. A broader immunity is achieved in the nasal mucosa than with the traditional vaccine, significantly reducing viral load and transmissibility. We may eventually take our annual boosters by this route.

Much of the lethality of COVID-19 has to do with the speed of infection. Even though the newer variants have mutated to become more transmissible, and accordingly faster to infect, they have not resulted in worsening disease. This is likely because more than 98% of the U.S. population now has some form of passive or active immunity. But for isolated populations, a new infection has the potential to be more dangerous. Similarly, stopping the virus early where it first infects our bodies may save a lot of lives and a lot of brains.

When you get the virus

At the first sign of illness, avoid cold temperatures that can shunt blood away from the nasal mucosa allowing a virus to become more deeply seated in the tissue. Limit the initial overreaction of the immune response by taking an anti-inflammatory drug like Advil if not contraindicated by other medical conditions. Stay hydrated with warm fluids. Some nasal saline could only help.

William Culbert is an Oak Ridge resident and retired physician.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: How the brain can be affected by COVID-19