Coronavirus symptoms update: Three ways COVID-19 can affect your mental state

Coronavirus has killed more than 900,000 people globally by official estimates; a number that will continue to rise until a vaccine has been discovered and distributed. Researchers following its destructive path have had a mountain of data to analyse, however. What has become abundantly clear is that SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – damages more than the lungs and airways.

In fact, in addition to interfering with the skin and gut, it also appears to affect the brain too.

Data from the COVID Symptom Study app shows that patients with coronavirus frequently suffer from delirium, a state of acute confusion, and disorientation.

The mechanisms that cause these brain problems have hitherto been largely unknown but new research does deepen our understanding.

The research, posted to the preprint database bioRxiv, has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The findings nonetheless illuminate our understanding of the relation COVID-19 has to the brain.

The key finding is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can sometimes hijack brain cells.

It shows that SARS-CoV-2 can directly infect brain cells called neurons.

“We are actively looking at more patient tissues to be able to find how frequently such brain infections occur … and what symptoms correlate with infection of which areas of the brain,” senior author Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, told Live Science in an email.

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Scientists are still trying to piece together how the virus enters the brain in the first place, and whether it can be kept out of the brain, the authors noted in their report.

To see whether SARS-CoV-2 could break into brain cells, the study authors examined autopsied brain tissue from three patients who died of COVID-19.

They also conducted experiments in mice infected with COVID-19 and in organoids — groups of cells grown in a lab dish to mimic the 3D structure of brain tissue.

“This study is the first to do an extensive analysis of SARS-CoV-2 [brain] infection using three models,” said Dr. Maria Nagel, a professor of neurology and ophthalmology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.

In the organoids, the team found that the virus could enter neurons through the ACE2 receptor, a protein on the cell surface that the virus uses to enter the cell and trigger infection.

They then used an electron microscope, which uses beams of charged particles to illuminate the tissue, to peer inside infected cells.

They could see coronavirus particles “budding” within the cell, demonstrating that the virus had hijacked the neurons’ internal machinery to build new copies of itself.

Other ways the virus can impede the body

In addition, some people have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, such as loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain or discomfort associated with COVID-19, notes Harvard Health.

These symptoms might start before other symptoms such as fever, body ache, and cough.

“The virus that causes COVID-19 has also been detected in stool, which reinforces the importance of hand washing after every visit to the bathroom and regularly disinfecting bathroom fixtures,” says Harvard Health.

What are the main symptoms of COVID-19?

According to the NHS, the main symptoms of coronavirus are:

  • A high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
  • A new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)
  • A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you’ve noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal.

“Most people with coronavirus have at least one of these symptoms,” explains the health body.

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