Study identifies link between COVID-19 and Parkinson’s

Morgan Liotta

2/11/2022 4:01:49 PM

Researchers say the virus aggravates brain cells similar to neurodegenerative conditions, flagging potential future risk, but also treatments.

Illustration of brain exploding
Having COVID-19 could potentially add ‘fuel to the fire’ in the brain of people pre-disposed to Parkinson’s.

Often characterised primarily as a respiratory disease, SARS-CoV-2 is also linked to neurological symptoms as evidence continues to emerge that infection can activate inflammation of cells.
Now, newly published international research led by the University of Queensland’s (UQ) School of Biomedical Sciences, has found the virus activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as neurological diseases like Parkinson’s.
As part of the research, microglia – the brain’s immune cells that play a role in the progression of brain diseases – were grown from the blood of healthy donors and infected with SARS-CoV-2 by the UQ researchers.
The cells then became highly inflammatory, activating the inflammasome pathway, which is linked to brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
‘Triggering the inflammasome pathway sparked a “fire” in the brain, which begins a chronic and sustained process of killing off neurons,’ study co-lead Dr Eduardo Albornoz Balmaceda said.
‘It may explain why some people who’ve had COVID-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.
‘It [COVID-19] is kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years.’
According to the study, the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was enough to start the ‘angry microglia’ inflammatory process, and while all cells reacted strongly to this virus across all donors, the process was further aggravated in those with existing proteins in the brain linked to Parkinson’s.
Head UQ researcher Professor Trent Woodruff said for someone who may already be pre-disposed to Parkinson’s, having COVID-19 ‘could be like pouring more fuel on that fire in the brain’.
‘The same would apply for a predisposition for Alzheimer’s and other dementias that have been linked to inflammasomes,’ he said.
While the authors highlight that as neuroinflammation is ‘a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases’, and their findings suggest a potential future risk for people who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, a possible treatment for Parkinson’s has also been flagged from the study.
A class of UQ-developed inhibitory drugs currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients were administered to mice infected with SARS-CoV-2 and those which had not been infected with the virus.
The results showed the drugs ‘put out the fire’ on the brain by blocking the inflammatory pathway in the mouse brain that had been activated by SARS-CoV-2.
‘The drug reduced inflammation in both COVID-19-infected mice and the microglia cells from humans, suggesting a possible treatment approach to prevent neurodegeneration in the future,’ Dr Albornoz Balmaceda said.
Those mice had ‘significantly reduced microglial inflammasome activation and increased survival’ in comparison with untreated SARS-CoV-2-infected mice, the authors write.
‘These results support a possible mechanism of microglial innate immune activation by SARS-CoV-2, which could explain the increased vulnerability to developing neurological symptoms akin to Parkinson’s disease in COVID-19 infected individuals, and a potential therapeutic avenue for intervention,’ the paper states
Professor Woodruff told the ABC these results may also shed light on some of the symptoms of ‘brain fog’ occurring in people post-COVID infection.
He added that of the many other drugs designed to block the inflammasome pathway currently in development across the globe, his team hopes that ‘one may make it all the way through to clinical application’.
According to the researchers, their findings complement the ‘knowledge-gap in molecular mechanisms’ by which SARS-CoV-2 may activate microglia and lead to neurological symptoms, supporting the potential role for COVID-19 in triggering brain diseases such as Parkinson’s.
While the links between how COVID-19 and diseases like Parkinson’s impact the brain are concerning, Professor Woodruff believes there is ‘no cause for alarm’ yet, and that the situation should continue to be monitored.
‘Further research is needed, but this is potentially a new approach to treating a virus that could otherwise have untold long-term health ramifications,’ he said.
‘Our research is really just the first piece of the puzzle.
‘It’s important to start looking clinically in some of these individuals that may be susceptible to see if what we’re discovering in the lab may also be true out in the population.’
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brain disease COVID-19 neurological symptoms Parkinson’s disease SARS-CoV-2

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