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Doctors Discover New Way COVID-19 Can Kill You

A new study have some insight into why some COVID-19 infections include perplexing neurological symptoms.
woman with face mask feeling sick and holding her head in pain while measuring temperature at home.

One aspect of the COVID-19 virus that has left many doctors and health experts perplexed is the virus's impact on the brain. Some coronavirus patients—36 percent according to early reports from Wuhan, China—have experienced neurological manifestations after contracting the virus, ranging from a loss of sense of smell to even seizures and strokes. New research out of Johns Hopkins University claims to have a potential explanation for some of the scariest symptoms that have resulted from coronavirus infections—the virus may actually be able to infect your brain. 

Scientists Used 'Mini-Brains'

Using organoids (tiny tissue cultures made from human cells that simulate whole organs) known as "mini-brains," a multidisciplinary team of neurotoxicologists, virologists and infectious disease specialists from two Johns Hopkins University institutions found that SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—can in fact result in an infection of the brain. Their findings were published in the journal ALTEX: Alternatives to Animal Experimentation.

According to their findings, certain human neurons express a receptor, ACE2, which is the same one that the SARS-CoV-2 virus uses to enter the lungs. They believe that ACE2 also might provide access to the brain.

They explain that the human brain is well-shielded against many viruses, bacteria and chemical agents by the blood-brain barrier. This usually prevents infections of the brain. However, they believe that this virus in particular might have the power to do so. 

"Whether or not the SARS-CoV-2 virus passes this barrier has yet to be shown," senior author Thomas Hartung, M.D., Ph.D., chair for evidence-based toxicology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, explains in an accompanying press release. "However, it is known that severe inflammations, such as those observed in COVID-19 patients, make the barrier disintegrate."

If this is the case, the difficult-to-penetrate blood-brain barrier may complicate the process of administering a drug to the brain. 

Caution Must Be Taken During Pregnancy

It also raises concern about the health of unborn babies, as the virus might have the potential to penetrate the developing brain. Previous research from Paris Saclay University demonstrated that the virus crosses the placenta, and embryos lack the blood-brain barrier during early development. "To be very clear," Hartung says, "we have no evidence that the virus produces developmental disorders." However, due to the potential, Hartung recommends that extra caution be taken during pregnancy.

"This study is another important step in our understanding of how infection leads to symptoms, and where we might tackle the COVID-19 disease with drug treatment," says William Bishai, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and leader of the infectious disease team for the study. "There is no doubt that the virus infects neurons and multiplies, and now we have to find out what this means for patients and public health."

No matter your race, wear your face mask, social distance, wash your hands frequently, monitor your health, don't leave home unless it's essential and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

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