The coronavirus enters brain cells directly and replicates itself causing the previously unexplained neurological symptoms some patients have experienced. Researchers at Yale University discovered this unique ability by analyzing coronavirus infections in mouse models, brain cells in lab dishes, and brain tissue in deceased COVID-19 positive patients.
According to The National Interest, the pathogen also starves nearby cells of life-giving oxygen, causing them to wither and die. For some individuals, this can be deadly.
"If the brain becomes infected, it could have a lethal consequence," Dr. Akiko Iwasaki, lead author of the study, said.
While most of the data says SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, primarily attacks the lungs, according to The New York Times, half of the patients report neurological symptoms such as headaches, confusion and delirium.
While the current study has not been peer reviewed, experts call it "careful and elegant, showing in multiple ways that the virus can infect brain cells," said the Times.
Research published last July in Brain, a neurological journal, found preliminary clinical data that SARS-CoV-2 infection is associated with neurological and neuropsychiatric illness.
Dr. Iwasaki said, unlike other pathogens like the Zika virus, the coronavirus does not destroy brain cells but takes advantage of their makeup to replicate itself.
"It's kind of a silent infection," he said, according to National Interest. "This virus has a lot of evasion mechanisms."
Iwasaki said the virus enters brain cells much like it invades the cells of the lungs and other parts of the body. It infects the cells through a protein on their surface called ACE2 inhibitors.
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