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Severe cases of COVID could lead to brain changes typically associated with aging

By: April Carson

According to an analysis of post-mortem brain samples, those with severe COVID-19 show changes in the brain similar to what is seen in elderly patients. These changes include abnormal accumulation of proteins and debris, narrowing of blood vessels and reduced brain tissue volume.

The study showed that people with more severe SARS-CoV-2 infections had greater brain changes in gene activity than uninfected people who were in an intensive care unit or on a ventilator.

The changes included increased activity in genes relevant to age-related conditions like Alzheimer's, dementia and Parkinson’s.

The new study published in Nature Aging on December 5th catalogues the effects of COVID-19 on brain health. Bugiani says, “It opens a plethora of questions that are important, not only for understanding the disease, but to prepare society for what the consequences of the pandemic might be.” The effects of our actions might not be apparent for years to come.

The study looked at gene expression in the brains of deceased COVID-19 patients and found that those with more severe forms of the disease had more changes to their gene activity than uninfected patients.

Upon coming across a preprint that described cognitive decline after individuals contracted COVID-19, Maria Mavrikaki, neurobiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts decided to further the study. Her aim was to see if she could find changes within the brain that might prompt such an effect.

What she found was startling - patterns of gene expression in the brains of those with severe COVID-19 suggested changes usually seen in aging brains.

The team compared samples from the frontal cortex of 21 people who had severe COVID-19 and one person with asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection at death to those of 22 individuals without a known history of infection. Another control group comprised nine people without a known history of infection but had spent time on a ventilator or in an ICU — interventions that can cause side effects.

Kaki and her team used several imaging techniques to identify differences between the two groups. They identified a decrease in the size of certain brain cells, or neurons, among the severely ill COVID-19 group compared with those without infection.

After extensive testing, the team found that people who had contracted severe COVID-19 experienced more brain activity in genes associated with inflammation and stress. On the other hand, genes linked to cognition and neural connections were less active.

In order to compare and see if there were any similarities, the scientists analysed brain tissue from 20 un infected people. This included 10 people who were 38 years or younger at death and 10 people 71 years or older. The research showed that the older group had brain changes similar to those seen in individuals with severe COVID-19.

Though the study's lead, Daniel Martins-de-Souza of proteomics at Brazil's University of Campinas calls it only "preliminary," he believes further research could use this as a foundation to inform future treatments for COVID patients with longterm cognitive difficulties.

Mavrikaki believes that COVID-19 affects gene activity not directly, as is commonly assumed, but indirectly through inflammation. This interpretation is supported by laboratory tests which exposed cultured neurons to proteins that promote inflammation and found an effect on the subset of aging-related genes.

The team's data suggests that severe COVID-19 could lead to a "premature aging" of the brain, however there is much still to be researched before drawing any firm conclusions.

However, this response might also be due to other infections, she says. Additionally, the study was unable to completely account for obesity or other conditions that could both raise a person’s chances of having severe COVID-19 and generate an inflammatory state that would then affect gene expression in the brain.

The study does, however, offer a new perspective on the link between COVID-19 and brain changes typically associated with aging. It is possible that these changes are not only due to the virus itself but are also caused by an inflammatory response in the body which affects gene expression in the brain.

Bugiani also questions if the changes in gene expression are only associated with severe cases of COVID-19, or if milder disease can cause them as well. In March, a study3 of hundreds of brain images from the UK Biobank found that even mild coronavirus could damage regions in the brain responsible for smell and taste.

Bugiani warns that it is still too early to tell if the changes seen in the study are temporary or not. “The pandemic has been going on for long enough that we can see these things happening, but not long enough to know if they will stick around,” she says. “We don’t yet know what their real consequences will be.”

But the evidence so far suggests that even mild cases of COVID-19 could have long lasting effects on the brain. It is important to remember that in order to protect your brain from potential damage, you should take all necessary actions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by following local guidelines and protocols such as social distancing, wearing a mask when outside or around other people, washing hands regularly, and avoiding large gatherings. Doing this will not only help keep you healthy but may also decrease your risk of developing age-related changes in your brain caused by this virus.

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About the Blogger:

April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on

To read more of April's blogs, check out her website! She publishes new blogs on a daily basis, including the most helpful mommy advice and baby care tips! Follow on IG @bossbabymav



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