SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, likely does not directly infect the brain but can still inflict significant neurological damage, according to a new study from neuropathologists, neurologists, and neuroradiologists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
“There’s been considerable debate about whether this virus infects the brain, but we were unable to find any signs of virus inside brain cells of more than 40 COVID-19 patients,” says James E. Goldman, MD, Ph.D., professor of pathology & cell biology (in psychiatry), who led the study with Peter D. Canoll, MD, Ph.D., professor of pathology & cell biology, and Kiran T. Thakur, MD, the Winifred Mercer Pitkin Assistant Professor of Neurology.
“At the same time, we observed many pathological changes in these brains, which could explain why severely ill patients experience confusion and delirium and other serious neurological effects – and why those with mild cases may experience ‘brain fog’ for weeks and months.”
The study, published in the journal Brain, is the largest and most detailed COVID-19 brain autopsy report published to date, suggests that the neurological changes often seen in these patients may result from inflammation triggered by the virus in other parts of the body or in the brain’s blood vessels.
No Virus in Brain Cells
The study examined the brains of 41 patients with COVID-19 who succumbed to the disease during their hospitalization. The patients ranged in age from 38 to 97; about half had been intubated and all had lung damage caused by the virus.
Many of the patients were of Hispanic ethnicity. There was a wide range of hospital length with some patients dying soon after arrival to the emergency room while others remained in the hospital for months. All of the patients had extensive clinical and laboratory investigations, and some had brain MRI and CT scans.
To detect any virus in the neurons and glia cells of the brain, the researchers used multiple methods including RNA in situ hybridization, which can detect viral RNA within intact cells; antibodies that can detect viral proteins within cells; and RT-PCR, a sensitive technique for detecting viral RNA.
Despite their intensive search, the researchers found no evidence of the virus in the patients’ brain cells. Though they did detect very low levels of viral RNA by RT-PCR, this was likely due to virus in blood vessels or leptomeninges covering the brain.
“We’ve looked at more brains than other studies, and we’ve used more techniques to search for the virus. The bottom line is that we find no evidence of viral RNA or protein in brain cells,” Goldman says.
“Though there are some papers that claim to have found virus in neurons or glia, we think that those result from contamination, and any virus in the brain is contained within the brain’s blood vessels.””If there’s any virus present in the brain tissue, it has to be in very small amounts and does not correlate with the distribution or abundance of neuropathological findings,” Canoll says.
The tests were conducted on more than two dozen brain regions, including the olfactory bulb, which was searched because some reports have speculated that the coronavirus can travel from the nasal cavity into the brain via the olfactory nerve. “Even there, we didn’t find any viral protein or RNA,” Goldman says, “though we found viral RNA and protein in the patients’ nasal mucosa and in the olfactory mucosa high in the nasal cavity.”
(The latter finding appears in an unpublished study, currently on BioRxiv, led by Jonathan Overdevest, MD, Ph.D., assistant professor of otolaryngology, and Stavros Lomvardas, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry & molecular biophysics and neuroscience.)
Hypoxic Damage and Signs of Neuronal Death
Despite the absence of virus in the brain, in every patient the researchers found significant brain pathology, which mostly fell into two categories.
“The first thing we noticed was a lot of areas with damage from a lack of oxygen,” Goldman says. “They all had severe lung disease, so it’s not surprising that there’s hypoxic damage in the brain.”
Some of these were large areas caused by strokes, but most were very small and only detectable with a microscope. Based on other features, the researchers believe these small areas of hypoxic damage were caused by blood clots, common in patients with severe COVID-19, that temporarily stopped the supply of oxygen to that area.
A more surprising finding, Goldman says, was the large number of activated microglia they found in the brains of most patients. Microglia are immune cells that reside in the brain and can be activated by pathogens.
“We found clusters of microglia attacking neurons, a process called ‘neuronophagia,'” says Canoll. Since no virus was found in the brain, it’s possible the microglia may have been activated by inflammatory cytokines, such as Interleukin-6, associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection.
“At the same time, hypoxia can induce the expression of ‘eat me’ signals on the surface of neurons, making hypoxic neurons more vulnerable to activated microglia,” Canoll says, “so even without directly infecting brain cells, COVID-19 can cause damage to the brain.”
The group found this pattern of pathology in one of their first autopsies, described by Osama Al-Dalahmah, MD, Ph.D., instructor in pathology & cell biology, in a case report published last March in Acta Neuropathologica Communications. Over the next few months, as the neuropathologists did many more COVID brain autopsies, they saw similar findings over and over again and realized that this is a prominent and common neuropathological finding in patients who die of COVID.
The activated microglia were found predominantly in the lower brain stem, which regulates heart and breathing rhythms, as well as levels of consciousness, and in the hippocampus, which is involved in memory and mood.
“We know the microglia activity will lead to loss of neurons, and that loss is permanent,” Goldman says. “Is there enough loss of neurons in the hippocampus to cause memory problems? Or in other parts of the brain that help direct our attention? It’s possible, but we really don’t know at this point.”
Persistent Neurological Problems in Survivors
Goldman says that more research is needed to understand the reasons why some post-COVID-19 patients continue to experience symptoms.
The researchers are now examining autopsies on patients who died several months after recovering from COVID-19 to learn more.
They are also examining the brains from patients who were critically ill with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) before the COVID-19 pandemic to see how much of COVID-19 brain pathology is a result of the severe lung disease.
Brain Expression of SARS-CoV-2 Receptors and Related Proteins
Similar to SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2 utilizes angiotensin converting enzyme-2 (ACE2) as the main docking receptor and needs proteolytic processing of the spike protein by transmembrane protease serine 2 (TMPRSS2) for efficient cell entry (Hoffmann et al., 2020). ACE2 protein has been observed in human brain vessels (Hamming et al., 2004), a finding recently attributed to expression in pericytes and smooth muscle cells in the vascular wall, but not in the endothelium lining cerebral vessels (He et al., 2020).
However, data mining of human brain single-nuclear RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) data also found expression in the choroid plexus and neocortical neurons, although the number of positive neurons was small (∼2% or less) (Chen et al., 2020c). No expression in microglia, endothelial cells, and pericytes was observed (Chen et al., 2020c). Besides ACE2, SARS-CoV-2 may utilize basigin (BSG; CD147) (Wang et al., 2020b) and neuropilin-1 (NRP1) (Cantuti-Castelvetri et al., 2020) as docking receptors, while a range of proteases including TMPRSS11A/B, cathepsin B and L, and furin (FURIN) have been shown to facilitate viral cell entry and replication (Shang et al., 2020).
Results from human single nuclei RNA-seq databases we mined (Hodge et al., 2019; Lake et al., 2018) are presented in Figures 1 and andS1 .S1 . Collectively, the data suggest that vascular wall cells may express ACE2 in the human brain at low levels, but non-canonical SARS-CoV-2 receptors are present in several brain cell types making them vulnerable to the virus. However, there is also evidence for a strong antiviral defense system in the brain vasculature (Figures 1 and andS1),S1), which, in concert with the endothelium’s ability to sense circulating interferon (IFN) type I signals, would limit SARS-CoV-2 entry into the brain.
Nervous System Invasion
The possibility of CNS invasion for SARS-CoV-2 has been suggested by analogy with the neurotropism of other coronaviruses, mainly SARS-CoV-1, MERS-CoV, and OC43 (Bergmann et al., 2006). Organoids and in vivo studies in human ACE2 transgenic mice have shown that SARS-CoV-2 can infect neurons and cause neuronal death in an ACE2-dependent manner (Song et al., 2020).
In brain cells derived from human pluripotent stem cells, dopaminergic neurons, but not cortical neurons or microglia, were particularly susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection (Yang et al., 2020). Clinical-pathological studies that have tested for the presence of the virus in the brain or the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) have had mixed results. Some studies have shown SARS-CoV-2 RNA in brain post-mortem or in the CSF in patients with encephalopathy or encephalitis, but at very low levels (Moriguchi et al., 2020; Solomon et al., 2020).
Other studies could not detect viral invasion, even though there was evidence of CSF inflammation (Bernard-Valnet et al., 2020; Ye et al., 2020). Considering the inconsistent data and the low levels of viral RNA, when detected, the possibility of artifact or contamination has been raised (Solomon et al., 2020).
Potential Routes of Brain Entry
Examination of how the virus could enter the nervous system may help assess the likelihood for direct invasion and pathogenicity. Based on other coronaviruses, several potential routes of entry for SARS-CoV-2 have been proposed (Bergmann et al., 2006).
Infection of olfactory system is consistent with the observation that loss of smell is a frequent neurological manifestation in COVID-19 (see Neurological Manifestations of COVID-19) and with evidence of increased MRI signal in the olfactory cortex suggestive of infection (Politi et al., 2020).
The virus could be internalized in nerve terminals by endocytosis, transported retrogradely, and spread trans-synaptically to other brain regions, as described for other coronaviruses (Dubé et al., 2018). ACE2 and TMPRSS2 have been detected in the nasal mucosa at the RNA and protein levels, but they seem to be localized to epithelial cells (sustentacular cells), not olfactory neurons (Brann et al., 2020), although another report suggests neuronal involvement (Nampoothiri et al., 2020). Therefore, it is unclear if the virus is restricted to the olfactory epithelium or reaches olfactory neurons.
The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a common route of entry of blood-borne viruses into the brain (Bergmann et al., 2006). In COVID-19, dissemination of the virus into the blood has been described, albeit with widely ranging frequencies (1% to 41%) (Wang et al., 2020c; Zheng et al., 2020), and the virus could access the brain by crossing the BBB. Crossing the intact BBB would require internalization and transport of the virus across the cerebral endothelium, in which the expression of SARS-CoV-2 docking proteins remains unclear (Figure 1).
ACE2 immunoreactivity was observed in brain vessels of a patient who died with multiple ischemic infarcts but the cellular localization was not determined (Bryce et al., 2020). The possibility of entry through other putative SARS-CoV-2 receptors expressed more widely in the cerebral vasculature, such as NRP1 and BSG, cannot be ruled out (Cantuti-Castelvetri et al., 2020). On the other hand, SARS-CoV-2-associated cytokines, including interleukin (IL)-6, IL-1β, tumor necrosis factor (TNF), and IL-17 disrupt the BBB (Erickson and Banks, 2018) and could facilitate the entry of the virus (Figure 2 ).
SARS-CoV-2 has been postulated to induce endothelial infection and inflammation in peripheral vessels (Teuwen et al., 2020), but direct evidence in cerebral endothelial cells has not been thus far provided. Rather, a lack of florid cerebrovascular inflammation has been noted in several autopsy studies (Bryce et al., 2020; Kantonen et al., 2020; Reichard et al., 2020; Solomon et al., 2020).
Comorbidities often seen in COVID-19, including cardiovascular risk factor or pre-existing neurological diseases, could, alone or in combination with cytokines, increase BBB permeability (Erickson and Banks, 2018). For example, in a COVID-19 patient with Parkinson’s disease, electron microscopy revealed viral particles in frontal lobe microvessels and neurons, suggesting trans-endothelial entry (Paniz-Mondolfi et al., 2020).
Another Parkinson’s disease patient with obesity, hypertension, and diabetes, exhibited at autopsy, in addition to hypoxic-ischemic neuronal damage, microhemorrhages, white matter lesions, and enlarged perivascular spaces, but no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 in the brain (Kantonen et al., 2020). SARS-CoV-2 could also enter the brain through the median eminence of the hypothalamus and other circumventricular organs, brain regions with a leaky BBB due to openings (fenestrae) in the capillary wall (Kaur and Ling, 2017).
Although the size of the viral particle (80–120 nm) is larger than endothelial fenestrae (Sarin, 2010), preliminary data suggest that median eminence capillaries and tanycytes express ACE2 and TMPRSS, which could allow virus entry into the hypothalamus (Nampoothiri et al., 2020). Owing to its widespread connection, the hypothalamus could serve as a gateway to the entire brain.
Infiltration of Infected Immune Cells
Viruses can enter the brain carried by infected immune cells, which can also serve as reservoir (Bergmann et al., 2006). Monocytes, neutrophils, and T cells traffic into the brain through the vasculature, the meninges, and the choroid plexus (Engelhardt et al., 2017), and these sites could be entry points for infected immune cells.
Conclusive evidence of infection of immune cells by SARS-CoV-2 has not been provided thus far (Merad and Martin, 2020). SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein (NP) immunoreactivity was observed in CD68+ cells in lymphoid organs (Chen et al., 2020), while single-cell RNA seq data showed viral RNA in macrophages in bronchoalveolar lavage of COVID-19 patients (Bost et al., 2020).
However, it remains unclear if this is due to actual virus propagation in macrophages or to phagocytic uptake of virus infected cells or extracellular virions (Bost et al., 2020; Merad and Martin, 2020). Furthermore, several autopsy series have revealed a notable lack of immune cell infiltration (Kantonen et al., 2020; Reichard et al., 2020; Solomon et al., 2020).
In summary, SARS-CoV-2 can infect neurons in vitro and cause neuronal death, but data from CSF and autopsy studies do not provide consistent evidence of direct CNS invasion. However, effects on the median eminence and other circumventricular organs cannot be ruled out and may play a role in the systemic manifestations of the disease.
Indirect Brain Effects of Systemic Factors
Several major organs are targeted by COVID-19 resulting in life threatening systemic complications.
Lung Damage and Respiratory Failure
The lung is the organ most affected in COVID-19, with massive alveolar damage, edema, inflammatory cell infiltration, microvascular thrombosis, microvascular damage, and hemorrhage (Carsana et al., 2020). SARS-CoV-2 has been detected mainly in pneumocytes and epithelial progenitors (Bost et al., 2020; Carsana et al., 2020). The respiratory failure resulting from lung damage leads to severe hypoxia (acute respiratory distress syndrome [ARDS]) requiring assisted ventilation (Grasselli et al., 2020). Consistent with hypoxic brain injury, autopsy studies in COVID-19 have shown neuronal damage in brain regions most vulnerable to hypoxia, including neocortex, hippocampus, and cerebellum (Kantonen et al., 2020; Reichard et al., 2020; Solomon et al., 2020).
Systemic Inflammation and Immune Dysregulation
A key feature of COVID-19 is a maladaptive immune response characterized by hyperactivity of innate immunity followed by immunosuppression (Diao et al., 2020; Qin et al., 2020; Vabret et al., 2020; Zhou et al., 2020). Improvement of T cell function coincides with remission of symptoms and declining viral loads (Thevarajan et al., 2020), attesting to the link between immuno-suppression and disease severity. In patients with severe disease, the cytokine release syndrome can develop (Qin et al., 2020; Xu et al., 2020).
Most COVID-19 patients exhibit increased circulating levels of IL-6, IL-1β, and TNF, as well as IL-2, IL-8, IL-17, G-CSF, GM-CSF, IP10, MCP1, and MIP1α2, and serum levels of IL-6 and TNF reflect disease severity (Diao et al., 2020). Even in the absence of SARS-CoV-2 brain invasion, viral proteins shed in the circulation and molecular complexes from damaged cells, such as the nuclear protein high mobility group box 1 (HMGB1) (Chen et al., 2020b), could enter the brain through a compromised BBB (Figure 2).
After brain entry, these molecules could act as pathogen-associated molecular patterns (PAMPs) and damage-associated molecular patters (DAMPs), and induce an innate immune response in pericytes, brain-resident macrophages, and microglia, which express toll-like receptors (TLR) (Figure 2).
TLR2 mediates the pro-inflammatory effects of SARS-CoV spike protein on human macrophages through nuclear factor κB (NF-κB) (Dosch et al., 2009). Such innate immune response increases cytokine production and impair brain function (Dantzer, 2018). In mice, viral infections increase circulating levels of IFNα/β leading to activation IFNR1 on cerebral endothelial cells and CXCL10-CXCR3-mediated cognitive impairment (cytokine sickness behavior) (Dantzer, 2018). An IFN type I response does occur in COVID-19 and is thought to be protective (Merad and Martin, 2020), but could contribute to the alterations in consciousness (see Neurological Manifestation of COVID-19).
The Hypothalamus: Target and Culprit of Immune Dysregulation
The brain, the hypothalamus in particular, could also contribute to the immune dysregulation (Figure 3 ). Several cytokines upregulated in COVID-19 (IL-6, IL-1β, and TNF) are powerful activators of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis (Dantzer, 2018). The HPA axis is central to the regulation of systemic immune activity and is activated by BBB dysfunction and neurovascular inflammation (Dantzer, 2018).
As mentioned above, COVID-19 is associated with immunosuppression and lymphopenia. In stroke and brain trauma, adrenergic stress involving β-adrenergic receptors results in massive systemic immunosuppression (Iadecola et al., 2020). The mechanisms of these effects involve activation of the HPA, leading to the release of norepinephrine and glucocorticoids. These mediators act synergistically to induce splenic atrophy, T cell apoptosis, and natural killer (NK) cell deficiency. I
n the bone marrow, tyrosine hydroxylase and norepinephrine trigger a response in mesenchymal stromal cells, most likely through β3-adrenergic receptors, resulting in a reduction of cell retention (Iadecola et al., 2020). Downregulation of these factors, in concert with calprotectin release from damaged lungs, may increase hematopoietic stem cell proliferation skewed toward the myeloid lineage (emergency myelopoiesis) (Schulte-Schrepping et al., 2020; Silvin et al., 2020), which results in lymphopenia and neutrophilia, two key hematological features of COVID-19 (Chen et al., 2020a; Moriguchi et al., 2020; Qin et al., 2020) (Figure 3). Importantly, in SARS, HPA activation and glucocorticoid levels are correlated with neutrophilia and lymphopenia (Panesar et al., 2004).
Another key feature of COVID-19 is a profound coagulopathy responsible for some of the most frequent and harmful complications of the disease. In a multicenter study, 88% of patients exhibited evidence of a hypercoagulable state (Helms et al., 2020b). COVID-19 coagulopathy is characterized by a distinctive pro-coagulant state with increased cloth strength, increased D-dimers (fibrin breakdown products indicative of intravascular thrombosis), and increased fibrinogen, without significant changes in the number of platelets or prolongation of clotting time parameters (Helms et al., 2020b).
Coagulopathy and thrombosis may start in the lungs and other infected organs with endothelial damage, complement activation, the procoagulant action of IL-6, and neutrophil recruitment (Goshua et al., 2020; Ramlall et al., 2020). In turn, neutrophils release extracellular traps (NETs) in COVID-19 (Middleton et al., 2020), a lattice of chromatin and histones that activates clotting, which contributes to intravascular thrombosis by trapping cells and platelets in many organs including the brain.
Systemic Organ Failure
COVID-19 also damages other organs. Metabolic and pathological evidence of damage to the kidney, heart, liver, gastrointestinal tract, and endocrine organs has been provided (Goyal et al., 2020; Inciardi et al., 2020; Pal and Banerjee, 2020; Pan et al., 2020; Su et al., 2020). The resulting systemic metabolic changes, including water and electrolyte imbalance, hormonal dysfunction, and accumulation of toxic metabolites, could also contribute to some of the more non-specific nervous system manifestations of the disease, like confusion, agitation, headache, etc. Cardiac involvement could impact the brain by reducing cerebral perfusion or, as discussed in the next section, could be an embolic source leading to ischemic strokes.
Neurological Manifestations of COVID-19
Numerous neurological abnormalities have been described in patients with COVID-19. These involve the central and peripheral nervous system, range from mild to fatal, and can occur in patients with severe or otherwise asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection. Neurological abnormalities have been described in ∼30% of patients who required hospitalization for COVID-19, 45% of those with severe respiratory illness and 85% of those with ARDS (Helms et al., 2020a; Mao et al., 2020).
In patients with mild COVID-19, neurological symptoms are mostly confined to nonspecific abnormalities such as malaise, dizziness, headache, and loss of smell and taste (Mao et al., 2020), routinely observed in respiratory virus infections such as the influenza (Chow et al., 2019). While serious neurological complications have been reported in patients with otherwise mild COVID-19 (Oxley et al., 2020), the most severe complications occur in critically ill patients and are associated with significantly higher mortality (Merkler et al., 2020; Yaghi et al., 2020).
Encephalopathy and Encephalitis
Alterations in mental status (confusion, disorientation, agitation, and somnolence), collectively defined as encephalopathy, have been consistently reported in various cohorts with COVID-19. Altered mental status occurs rarely (<5%), even in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization for respiratory illness (Mao et al., 2020), but affects the majority of critically ill COVID-19 patients with ARDS (Helms et al., 2020a).
A key question is whether this alteration in mental status represents an encephalopathy caused by systemic illness or encephalitis directly caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself. Several cases have been reported of COVID-19 patients (Efe et al., 2020; Farhadian et al., 2020; Huang et al., 2020b; Moriguchi et al., 2020; Pilotto et al., 2020) who appear to meet established diagnostic criteria for infectious encephalitis, which include altered mental status, fever, seizures, white blood cells in the CSF, and focal brain abnormalities on neuroimaging (Venkatesan et al., 2013).
In at least two reported cases, SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the CSF (Huang et al., 2020b; Moriguchi et al., 2020), although, as discussed in the previous section (Nervous System Invasion), only modest amounts of viral RNA were detected. In at least one COVID-19 case, the diagnosis of temporal lobe encephalitis was confirmed by biopsy that showed perivascular lymphocytic infiltrates and hypoxic neuronal damage (Efe et al., 2020), but the presence of SARS-CoV2 or other viruses in brain or CSF was not documented. Indeed, most samples of CSF in patients with neurological abnormalities in the setting of COVID-19 have not revealed evidence of SARS-CoV-2 (Kandemirli et al., 2020), and most samples of brain tissue from autopsies of COVID-19 patients have not revealed evidence of encephalitis (see Nervous System Invasion).
Besides encephalitis, most COVID-19 patients have other reasons for their altered mental status. Delirium, confusional states, and coma appear most common in COVID-19-related critical illness (Helms et al., 2020a; Mao et al., 2020; Rogers et al., 2020), which is often marked by hypoxia, hypotension, renal failure, the need for heavy doses of sedatives, and prolonged immobility and isolation (Cummings et al., 2020)—all factors well known to cause encephalopathy (Maas, 2020). The rarity of cases clinically consistent with encephalitis, the paucity of histopathological evidence of encephalitis, and the many alternative explanations for the altered mental status, suggest that SARS-CoV-2 brain invasion is a possible but rare cause of encephalopathy.
Stroke is not uncommon among patients hospitalized with COVID-19, with reported rates ranging from 1%–3% in hospitalized patients and up to 6% of critically ill patients (Mao et al., 2020; Merkler et al., 2020; Yaghi et al., 2020), 7-fold higher than in patients hospitalized with influenza even after adjustment for illness severity (Merkler et al., 2020).
Early case reports described unusual embolic strokes in otherwise young healthy individuals with COVID-19 (Oxley et al., 2020), but in subsequent case series, patients were generally older and had numerous vascular comorbidities (Lodigiani et al., 2020). Therefore, it remains unclear whether these strokes were caused by SARS-CoV-2 or represented the background incidence of stroke in these high-risk populations that also happened to be infected at the time.
It is plausible that SARS-CoV-2 infection does play some role in causing stroke, given that infections in general increases stroke risk (Parikh et al., 2020). The COVID-19-related hypercoagulability would be expected to increase susceptibility to cerebrovascular events, as reported in an autopsy series in which widespread microthrombi and patches of infarction were observed some brains (Bryce et al., 2020).
Patients with COVID-19 may be at risk of cardioembolic stroke. Acute cardiac injury and clinically significant arrhythmias have been reported in approximately10% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 20%–40% of those requiring intensive care (Goyal et al., 2020; Huang et al., 2020a; Wang et al., 2020a). SARS-CoV-2 infection may rarely cause myocarditis and heart failure even in the absence of significant pulmonary involvement (Inciardi et al., 2020).
Myocardial injury and arrhythmias, such as atrial fibrillation, in the setting of severe infection may result in cardiac embolism and brain infarction (Inciardi et al., 2020). A substantial proportion of critically ill patients with COVID-19 may also develop secondary bacteremia in addition to the primary viral illness. In one case series, approximately10% of patients requiring mechanical ventilation had bacteremia (Goyal et al., 2020), which increases the risk of stroke by over 20-fold (Dalager-Pedersen et al., 2014).
Septic emboli to the brain often result in bleeding, and in a postmortem magnetic resonance imaging study, 10% of brains had evidence of hemorrhage (Coolen et al., 2020).Taken together, these clinical findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may adversely affect the brain via multiple pathophysiological pathways that culminate in vascular brain injury.
Post-infectious Neurological Complications
SARS-CoV-2 unleashes a dysregulated systemic immune response (see Systemic Inflammation and Immune Dysregulation), which can have delayed effects on the nervous system. These immune-mediated manifestations involve both the central and peripheral nervous system and occur typically after the acute phase of the infection subsides.
In the CNS, reported cases in COVID-19 resemble classic post-infectious inflammatory conditions such as acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (Parsons et al., 2020) and acute necrotizing hemorrhagic encephalopathy (Poyiadji et al., 2020). Peripherally, several cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neuropathy caused by an immune attack on peripheral nerves, have been reported in patients with recent COVID-19 (Toscano et al., 2020).
Most reported cases describe classic features of this syndrome, such as generalized weakness, evidence of demyelination on nerve conduction studies, and elevated proteins without white blood cells in CSF (Toscano et al., 2020). The Miller-Fisher variant of Guillain-Barre syndrome, characterized by cranial nerve involvement, has also been reported, including at least one case with detectable anti-ganglioside antibodies suggesting an immune attack on the peripheral nerves (Gutiérrez-Ortiz et al., 2020). SARS-CoV-2 was not detected in any of the CSF samples (Toscano et al., 2020), supporting an immune mechanism rather than direct infection.
Intensive Care-Related Neurological Manifestations
The relatively high frequency of altered mental status in hospitalized COVID-19 patients is congruent with the severity of their illness. Most critically ill COVID-19 patients require mechanical ventilation (Cummings et al., 2020) and an agitated confusional state (delirium) occurs in more than 80% of mechanically ventilated patients in intensive care units (Ely et al., 2001). Patients with ARDS, which frequently complicates severe COVID-19, are at particularly high risk of delirium, likely because of hypoxemia heavy doses of sedatives, administration of paralytic agents, or other causes (Hopkins et al., 2005; Ouimet et al., 2007).
Comparison with Other Viral Respiratory Infections
Many neurological abnormalities seen in COVID-19 mirror those of other viral respiratory illnesses. All of the reported COVID-19 related post-infectious inflammatory conditions of the nervous system, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome, acute necrotizing hemorrhagic encephalopathy, and acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, are classically seen after infections, including other coronaviruses (Gerges Harb et al., 2020).
Influenza is occasionally associated with an encephalopathy or full blown encephalitis, with evidence of influenza virus in the cerebrospinal fluid (Surtees and DeSousa, 2006). Comparing the large numbers of patients infected by SARS-CoV-2 worldwide and the relative paucity of reported encephalitis cases, SARS-CoV-2 seems more similar to other common respiratory viral pathogens like influenza than to neurotropic pathogens that target specifically the brain, such as the herpes simplex virus.
In general, however, COVID-19 is more debilitating than other common viral respiratory illnesses. Physicians have been struck by the frequency of thrombotic complications observed in critically ill COVID-19 patients, to the point that some hospitals instituted protocols for empiric, high-dose anticoagulation in patients with elevated D-dimer levels (Paranjpe et al., 2020). Emerging data seem to confirm this observation: in one multicenter study, patients with COVID-19 and acute respiratory distress syndrome had twice the incidence of thrombotic complications compared to a matched cohort with ARDS from other causes (Helms et al., 2020b). This also applies to thrombotic complications affecting the brain, because the proportion of COVID-19-related hospitalizations complicated by stroke seems much higher than that seen in influenza (Merkler et al., 2020). Based on neuroinflammation-associated abnormalities in the clotting cascade in brain (Han et al., 2008), activated protein C or thrombin inhibitors could also be of therapeutic value.
More information: Brain (2021). DOI: 10.1093/brain/awab148