SARS-CoV-2 is associated with changes in brain structure in UK Biobank

The study “SARS-CoV-2 is associated with changes in brain structure in UK Biobank” provides significant insights into the neurological impacts of COVID-19.

Here’s a summary:

Study Design and Participants: The study involved 785 participants from the UK Biobank, aged between 51–81 years, who underwent brain MRI scans twice, with an average of 38 months between scans. Among these, 401 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 between their two scans. The availability of pre-infection imaging data helped in assessing changes attributable to the infection​​.

Key Findings:

  1. Brain Structure Changes: Significant changes were observed in those infected with SARS-CoV-2, including a greater reduction in grey matter thickness and tissue contrast in the orbitofrontal cortex and parahippocampal gyrus, and greater changes in markers of tissue damage in regions connected to the primary olfactory cortex. Additionally, a greater reduction in overall brain size was noted in SARS-CoV-2 cases​​.
  2. Cognitive Decline: Participants who contracted SARS-CoV-2 showed a greater decline in cognitive abilities, specifically in tasks involving speed and attention, like the Trail Making Test. This decline was significant even after statistical correction, indicating a notable impact of SARS-CoV-2 on cognitive functions​​.
  3. Hypothesis-Driven and Exploratory Results: The hypothesis-driven analysis focusing on olfactory-related brain areas yielded 68 significant results. Additionally, a broader exploratory analysis involving 2047 brain imaging-derived phenotypes (IDPs) revealed 65 significant differences between infected and control groups​​.

Conclusions and Implications: The study’s findings suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infection, even in non-hospitalized cases, is associated with measurable changes in brain structure and function. The observed changes, particularly in areas related to olfaction and cognition, underline the potential neurotropic nature of the virus and its broader impact on the brain. The long-term consequences of these findings, such as whether the observed brain changes and cognitive decline are reversible or persist over time, warrant further investigation.

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