A major new study published this week in Nature Aging has found startling evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can directly infect dopamine neurons in the brain, causing cell senescence and long-term impacts on brain function. 1 This groundbreaking research helps explain “brain fog”, fatigue, and psychiatric conditions linked to long COVID.
SARS-CoV-2 Shown To Infect Dopamine Neurons in Lab Models
The study conducted at Weill Cornell Medicine investigated how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with neurons that produce dopamine – a key neurotransmitter involved in movement, motivation, and mood regulation. 2
Using both mouse and human stem cell models, the researchers definitively showed SARS-CoV-2 infects and replicates in dopamine neurons. Viral proteins were observable inside neurons and led to cell senescence – losing the ability to divide and replenish themselves.3
Senior author Dr. Anna Ardizzoni said:
“Our findings provide the first evidence that dopamine neurons could be directly infected by SARS-CoV-2 and raise the possibility that dopamine signaling could be impaired following COVID-19 infection.”
Overstimulation of dopamine receptors from viral infection may also explain the neurological and psychiatric symptoms of long COVID. These include brain fog, fatigue, depression, anxiety and even psychosis in some people.4
Dopamine Imbalance May Underpin Long COVID Conditions
Dopamine controls many crucial cognitive, behavioral and emotional processes in the brain. Dysfunction of these neurons manifests in conditions like Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, and addiction. An imbalance of dopamine signaling is also linked to symptoms consistent with long COVID brain issues.5
For example, altered motivation levels from low dopamine could cause the fatigue, headaches and ‘brain fog’ widely reported by long COVID sufferers. Mood disorders like anxiety and depression can also arise from dopamine imbalance according to Dr. David Putrino:
“Depression and anxiety can occur when dopamine production is thrown off balance.”
He emphasizes treating mental health is imperative for long COVID recovery, noting:
“The mind and the body are linked. We need to treat both.”
Dr. Putrino highlights emerging evidence that long COVID seems to selectively damage neurotransmitter systems like dopamine and serotonin linked to motivation and pleasure. Restoring balance in these pathways could alleviate disabling long COVID neurological symptoms that linger for months or years after the initial infection.
Researchers Identify Drug Candidates To Protect Dopamine Neurons
The Cornell team performed follow-up drug screens to identify compounds that protect dopamine neurons from SARS-CoV-2 infection and senescence. They found two promising candidates – PCN-22 and alpha-synuclein misfolding inhibitor Anle138b – which prevented cell aging and death.6
These drugs and other senolytic compounds will require further investigation before being trialed for long COVID treatment. However, senior author Dr. Anna Ardizzoni says:
“Our findings pave the way for studying long COVID-19 associated neurological symptoms, as well as for identifying existing or new compounds that could alleviate these symptoms.”
Ongoing Research Investigating Other Neurological Impacts
While the Cornell study provides alarming new evidence of SARS-CoV-2 directly damaging dopamine signaling, research indicates the virus attacks the brain in multiple ways that scientists are still working to unravel.
Autopsies show widespread inflammation, bleeding and oxygen deprivation inside brains of deceased COVID-19 patients. A study this month discovered shrinking of gray matter regions up to 2% per year caused by SARS-CoV-2. Loss of brain volume typically accumulates over decades but is accelerated in COVID-19.7
Ongoing issues like strokes and blood clots afflicting long COVID patients hint at vascular damage from COVID-19 that starves the brain of oxygen. Investigating treatments to repair and protect brain blood vessels is another promising area according to experts.8
Restoring oxygen flow to prevent ongoing neurological injury will be crucial. COVID-19 also triggers harmful immune responses causing brain swelling and inflammation lasting months or years for some patients. Identifying drugs to dampen these immune overreactions without weakening ability to fight infection is a current research priority.9
|COVID-19 Effect on Brain
|Potential Treatment Approaches
|Dopamine pathway stabilizers, senolytic drugs
|Blood clots / Strokes
|Vasodilators to open blood vessels
While daunting, scientists emphasize fully cataloging all neurological effects of COVID-19 will enable developing better treatments and protecting long-term brain health. The accumulating research makes clear SARS-CoV-2 can inflict devastating CNS impacts – but focused studies like the recent dopamine discovery offer hope these can be reversed.
What This Means For Long COVID Sufferers
For those experiencing ongoing neurological symptoms like brain fog, fatigue or mood issues after COVID-19, the dopamine study provides validation these have a real biological cause from viral damage.
The good news is researchers are urgently working to understand the full spectrum of SARS-CoV-2 effects on the central nervous system. This will enable developing tailored treatments to repair, protect and restore brain function after COVID-related neurological injury.
However, experts emphasize addressing mental health issues is equally vital for recovery through counseling, stress reduction, mindfulness, social connection and other therapies. Healing the mind will be key to overcoming long COVID alongside biomedicine.
While daunting questions remain about the long-term outlook, the accumulating research makes clear COVID-19 impacts the brain in multifaceted ways scientists are only beginning to unravel. However difficult the road ahead, sufferers can find hope in the rapid progress already made towards reversing neurological damage from SARS-CoV-2 infection.
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