The novel coronavirus can have a significant impact on a number of different bodily systems. So far, we’ve mostly heard how COVID-19 impacts the heart, lungs and your respiratory system, but we’re starting to learn more about how the virus affects the brain and neurological system, and the information is somewhat concerning.
The information is less of a major breakthrough in understanding and more of a growing collection of studies and samples that suggest the coronavirus can have a significant impact on some of our most vital health systems. For starters, there was a report in April that said roughly a third of 214 COVID patients that were studied experienced neurological complications, ranging in severity from a temporary loss of smell to a stroke. Then there was the University College of London study released earlier this month that found that 10 out of 43 studied patients had temporary brain dysfunction and delirium. Other findings from that study found that:
Finally, another study published last month in The Lancet found that even young individuals are seeing an increase in depression, psychosis and strokes following contraction of COVID-19. But what’s unclear is exactly how and why this brain damage is occurring. We’re still working on answers, but medical experts have some theories while they conduct research.
The first theory is that because the virus tends to spread through particles in the air, it usually enters our body through the nose or mouth. When this happens, the virus might cross the cribriform plate, the bone at the top of the nose. From there it can reach the area that houses the olfactory nerve and nearby nerve branches. If it damages these nerves, you can lose your ability to smell, and a similar process happens with our taste buds and our sense of taste. The good news with this theory is that findings show that nearly 9 in 10 patients recover from these symptoms in two weeks with no long-term neurological issues.
Another theory has to do with how the virus affects a protein receptor found in cells all over your body. When the virus binds to these receptors in your nose and mouth, the nerve cells can’t do their job of helping the body interpret smells and taste. This theory is interesting because these same receptors also help our bodies maintain a healthy blood pressure and in turn protect the heart and brain from damage. If the receptors can’t function properly, your blood pressure can change, leading to organ damage, similar to what we’re seeing with COVID-19.
When the virus damages protein receptors in the blood vessels, it can trigger an immune response from the body. This immune response can lead to the formation of tens of thousands of small clots or fewer larger clots, and if this severely impacts blood flow to the brain, a stroke can occur. In fact, a stroke or stroke-like symptoms could be one of the first signs of an asymptomatic COVID reaction.
Needless to say, we’re still learning how the coronavirus impacts our brains and our neurological systems, but it’s safe to say that COVID isn’t just a respiratory illness. Those with neurological conditions need to take extra caution, and neurological changes could also be a sign that a person could be dealing with the effects of COVID. Hopefully we continue to expand our knowledge of how the body is impacted by the virus so we can develop more successful care and prevention strategies.