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How does COVID-19 impact the brain? Researchers will study MRIs from survivors to find out

June 10, 2020

As healthcare professionals discover more about how COVID-19 affects the respiratory system, scientists suggest the virus could have potential neurological consequences in some patients.

A team of researchers led by Dr. Simon Graham, Interim Director of Physical Sciences at Sunnybrook Research Institute, is launching a study to investigate how COVID-19 impacts the brain.

“We know from early case reports in China that about 30 to 40 percent of hospitalized patients had neurological symptoms,” says Dr. Graham, the study’s principal investigator. “Symptoms included headaches, confusion, and stroke. Most common was a loss of smell, which in the absence of any nasal congestion suggests that the virus may affect brain regions that control our sense of smell. Chronic neurological problems have also been associated with other types of coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Given the numbers of people infected by COVID-19, more detailed brain research is definitely needed.”

“COVID-19 can have a big impact on the lungs, but at what point are symptoms a reflection of bottom up versus top down processes in the body? Breathing occurs when signals are sent from the brain down to the body. If some of the COVID symptoms are due to disrupted brain-to-lung signals, then this could be a blind spot in understanding the virus. This needs to be explored,” says Dr. Brad MacIntosh, study co-investigator and senior scientist at Sunnybrook Research Institute. “Our goal is to investigate this further to assess to what extent COVID-19 may impact the brain.”

Dr. Graham, alongside his research team at Sunnybrook and collaborators at Baycrest, will study the neurological impact of COVID-19 through the use of clinical assessments and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain in recovered COVID-19 patients. Patients who have tested negative are also invited to participate in the study, acting as a control group. Study participants will be assessed at baseline and several months after their initial visit, to detect whether brain symptoms are present, and whether the symptoms resolve or linger. The research team aims to enlist several more imaging sites across the country to increase the number and diversity of the participants who are studied.

“This collaborative effort is paramount in the discovery of how COVID-19 could potentially impact different regions of the brain and what effect the virus may have on thinking, learning and memory,” says Dr. Jean Chen, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and co-principal investigator. Other Baycrest co-PIs include Dr. Asaf Gilboa and Dr. Allison Sekuler.

“It is critical that we understand the possible effects of COVID-19 on brain health, both to address immediate needs and to prepare for longer term impacts,” adds Dr. Sekuler, Vice President of Research at Baycrest. “We are thrilled to be co-leading this study, and to be working with scientists from across the country to get answers as quickly as possible.”

“In addition to raising awareness of this issue among doctors and in the public,” says Dr. Graham, “the study will also allow us to direct patients in need towards neurointerventions and treatments as early as possible.”

The study is currently recruiting patients.

Learn more about the study and how to participate »

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