COVID-19 patients show more signs of brain damage than people with Alzheimer’s disease

NEW YORK – Could COVID-19 actually harm the human brain more than Alzheimer’s disease? Older patients who contract COVID show more signs of brain damage than people who develop the neurodegenerative disease, a new study finds.

Specifically, a team from NYU Grossman School of Medicine found significantly higher levels of certain blood proteins that typically increase when someone suffers neurological damage in COVID patients. The researchers say that over the short-term course of their infections, seven markers of brain damage were significantly higher in COVID patients than in non-COVID patients with Alzheimer’s disease. One of these markers was more than twice as high in coronavirus patients.

“Our results suggest that patients hospitalized with COVID-19, and particularly those with neurological symptoms during their acute infection, may have levels of brain injury markers as high as, or even higher than, those seen in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” lead author Jennifer Frontera, MD, a professor in the Department of Neurology, said in an academic statement.

What blood markers should COVID patients be worried about?

Study authors say the main sign of brain damage in COVID patients was the condition toxic metabolic encephalopathy (TME). Symptoms range from confusion to coma, due to the reaction of toxins created by the immune system (sepsis), failing kidneys and lack of oxygen in the tissues.

The team looked at 251 people hospitalized with COVID-19 during the first months of the pandemic in 2020. The average age of participants was 71, but all were generally healthy with no history of dementia or cognitive decline. before their departure. Covid infection. The researchers separated these patients into two groups, those with and without neurological symptoms due to COVID-19.

From there, the team compared these people to a group of control patients from the Clinical Core cohort at the NYU Langone Alzheimer’s Research Center. This group is part of the NYU Long-Term Dementia Study and included 54 healthy people, 54 with mild cognitive decline and 53 with Alzheimer’s disease. None of the control patients contracted COVID-19 during the study.

As for what the scientists were looking for, three blood markers – ubiquitin carboxy-terminal hydrolase L1 (UCHL1), total tau and phosphorylated tau-181 (ptau181) – all measure the death or disruption of neurons in the brain.

Neurofilament light chain levels increase when brain axons are damaged. They are branch-like extensions from neurons. Glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) levels measure damage to glial cells, another type of brain cell that supports neurons. Finally, beta-amyloid 40 and 42 are common markers that typically accumulate in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The results show that the seven markers of brain damage were more than 60% higher in COVID patients with TME than in those without neurological symptoms.

Even worse brain damage among fatal COVID cases

Regarding, the study authors found that brain damage markers were even worse in patients who did not survive their coronavirus infection. Markers among patients who died from COVID were 124% higher than those who eventually left hospital.

Compared to patients with Alzheimer’s disease, the results show that neurofilament light chain markers were 179% higher in short-term coronavirus patients. GFAP levels were also 65% higher in COVID patients compared to those with dementia.

“Traumatic brain injury, which is also associated with increases in these biomarkers, does not mean that a patient will later develop Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, but does increase risk,” says lead author Thomas Wisniewski. , MD, director of the Center for Cognitive Neurology at NYU Langone. “Whether this type of relationship exists in those who survive severe COVID-19 is a question that we urgently need to answer with continued surveillance of these patients.

The study is published in the Alzheimer & Dementia®: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

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