Research led by The University of Queensland has found that Covid-19 activates the same inflammatory response in the brain as Parkinson’s disease.
The discovery identified a potential future risk for neurodegenerative conditions in people who have had Covid-19, but also a possible treatment.
The UQ team was led by Professor Trent Woodruff and Dr Eduardo Albornoz Balmaceda from UQ’s School of Biomedical Sciences, and virologists from the School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences.
“We studied the effect of the virus on the brain’s immune cells, ‘microglia’ which are the key cells involved in the progression of brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” Professor Woodruff said. “We found the cells effectively became ‘angry’, activating the same pathway that Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s proteins can activate in disease, the inflammasomes.”
A silent killer
Dr Albornoz Balmaceda said triggering the inflammasome pathway sparked a ‘fire’ in the brain, which begins a chronic and sustained process of killing neurons.
“It’s kind of a silent killer, because you don’t see any outward symptoms for many years,” Dr Balmaceda added. “It may explain why some people who’ve had Covid-19 are more vulnerable to developing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease.”
The researchers found the spike protein of the virus was enough to start the process and was further exacerbated when there were already proteins in the brain linked to Parkinson’s.
The researchers administered a class of UQ-developed inhibitory drugs which are currently in clinical trials with Parkinson’s patients.
“We found it successfully blocked the inflammatory pathway activated by Covid-19, essentially putting out the fire,” Dr Balmaceda said.
“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.”