COVID-19 virus doesn't infect brain, but damages it, study suggests

A new analysis of brain autopsies from 41 COVID-19 patients suggests that the SARS-CoV-2 virus does not infect the brain, but can still cause significant neurological damage. 

Researchers at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City conducted the study, which was published April 15 in the journal Brain. The 41 patients included in the analysis ranged in age from 38 to 97 and all died while hospitalized for COVID-19.

Researchers used various techniques to search for the virus in more than two dozen regions of the brain. They found no evidence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in patients' brain cells. 

However, they did find brain damage in all 41 patients. Many patients had hypoxic brain injuries due to a lack of oxygen, which researchers said were likely from blood clots or stroke. Most patients also had a large number of activated microglia — a type of immune cell — that were attacking neurons in the brain even though the virus was not present. Researchers said the microglia may have been triggered by inflammation or hypoxia. 

The study represents the largest COVID-19 brain autopsy report to date and suggests that neurological issues associated with the illness may stem from inflammation the virus triggers in other parts of the body or in the brain's blood vessels, researchers said.

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