A study has found that severe COVID infection can damage nerve cells in the brain, leading to memory problems and confusion. It can also lead to long-term health issues, researchers have said. Scientists at King’s College London found that a wayward immune response to the virus increased the death rate of neurons and had a “profound” impact on regeneration in the hippocampus region of the brain, which is crucial for learning and memory, reported The Guardian.
The study indicates that even if the virus does not infect the brain, it can trigger neurological problems, causing issues like delirium and brain fog, especially in people suffering from long COVID.
“These neurological symptoms are very concerning for patients and their families, and the hope is that our research can help identify which treatments would be most appropriate to lessen or prevent these symptoms,” said Carmine Pariante, a professor of biological psychiatry at KCL’s Institute of Psychiatry, and senior author of the study.
After testing the blood samples of 36 Covid patients, it was found that the levels of a protein called IL-6, which immune cells release as warning for other immune cells, were more than 15 times higher than normal in infected individuals. But the rise was six times higher than other Covid patients in those with delirium, a state of extreme confusion that can leave people not knowing who, or where, they are. Delirium is a common fallout of Covid in nearly one-third of Covid patients admitted to hospitals.
“We believe these proteins are responsible for the delirium symptoms in acute Covid patients, and in general in long Covid patients experiencing neurological symptoms,” Dr Alessandra Borsini, the study’s first author, said.
The researchers then studied the impact of IL-6 on neurons and found that blood from patients with delirium increased the normal death rate of neurons and reduced the generation of new brain cells.