We all ask what COVID does, but ‘What does COVID not do?’ might be the better question as we work to understand not only the symptoms of COVID and Long COVID, but more importantly the mechanisms by which this virus and others cause such long-term harm. Interestingly, this mounting push for understanding exactly how viruses contribute to long-term diseases might be the one good thing that has come out of this pandemic. In this summarized paper, researchers sought to understand how SARS-CoV2 and its famous spike protein might lead to acute and chronic neurological disease.
Whether you follow this blog or have simply watched more than 1 newscast over the past 2 years, COVID and its virus, SARS-CoV2, need no introduction. You have undoubtedly either experienced COVID for yourself or witnessed its effects in friends and family. However, as you lived through it or watched other go through it, you have likely been puzzled by the variety of effects it exerts. While common patterns exist, the range and variety of effects likely trigger some curiosity. Part of this curiosity focuses on the range of acute severity, but as time wears on, interest in the long-term effects of COVID infection gains more and more traction.
Consider the neurologic system in the acute setting. Viral infections of any consequence often produce some short-lived brain fog, headaches, dizziness, or other neurologic symptoms. Severe acute infections may even lead to lethargy, confusion, focal neurologic changes, or death. Now turn to chronic symptoms. Some simply drag on for weeks, months, or years due to the initial damage to brain or nerve tissue. Other symptoms and neurologic syndromes develop over time along different mechanistic paths. Such circumstances drove these researchers to consider how the virus and its spike protein might drive individuals toward future neurologic diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.
Parkinson’s disease in its classic form involves brain regions associated with movement. As the classic disease advances, the ability to initiate movement and maintain it smoothly wanes. Normally, one initiates movement, finishes the intended range of motion, and halts at a determined point. With Parkinson’s disease, each of these stages is hindered. Over time, the disease may progress until one has great difficulty in initiating movement and appears either very slow or frozen and stiff. In the end, even dementia can result. As it sounds, it is very debilitating and ultimately life threatening.
In the wake of the global spread of COVID, while the vast majority of SARS-CoV2 victims survive with little to no ongoing effects, a small but significant number experience short or even long-term neurologic symptoms. Some resemble Parkinson’s disease in terms of affecting movement. These researchers knew from other research that visible pathologic changes in the brains of COVID victims had been documented. They knew that a set of proteins in immune cells called inflammasomes contributed both to the severity of COVID disease and played a role in some neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s. Putting that knowledge together with many other areas of research, they devised experiments which might help identify the mechanism through which COVID might cause short or long-term harm to the nervous system.
Ultimately, they found through multiple layers of testing that indeed, both the SARS-CoV2 virus and its spike protein could trigger cells in the brain called microglia to activate. Microglia, immune system cells adapted to and resident in brain tissue, assist with immune defenses when behaving, but if misbehaving, do play a role in many different brain diseases. Their experiments did not show that the virus could replicate in these microglia, but the microglia could be activated through the inflammasomes to create nerve cell damaging inflammation.
Normally, the inflammasome requires priming by one mechanism and activation by another separate mechanism. This allows them to walk the line between proper and improper function, guarding from infection, but avoiding causing harm to the resident brain cells. Both the virus as a whole and the spike protein by itself can initiate the priming and activation of the inflammasomes. Through studies in genetically modified mice and comparison with human cell lines, these facts were validated, suggesting that this process likely occurs in actual human infections. The microglia possess ACE2 receptors which permit entry of the virus or spike protein, but the virus does not seem to multiply in the cells.
Implications from this study lead to many more questions, the foremost of which is how to stop this inflammation. While prevention of infection would seem the easiest target, obvious failures to contain the virus by the past 2 years pandemic measures makes that a likely fruitless endeavor. Furthermore, the mainstream heavyweight hope for conquering the virus rests in a novel therapy using the very protein, the spike protein, that triggers the inflammation. Using the very trigger for a disease mechanism to prevent the mechanism seems a little… misguided, to say the least.
In functional medicine, we use what we have; we use the treatments we already know to help control inflammation, then build on that as we can. Mainstream medicine agrees that lowering the overall burden of inflammation in a person’s body will lower their risk of disease and their risk of severe disease. Controlling metabolic inflammation in diabetes and obesity is a good start. Optimizing anti-inflammatory nutrients like vitamin D, zinc, vitamin C and others seems like a ‘no-brainer’. Functional medicine would go further and say that other herbals and antioxidants offer further protection and that lowering one’s toxic burden helps keep the blood brain barrier harder to cross for infections and keeps additional inflammatory triggers at a minimum.
Helping others restore healthier more abundant lives requires making them aware of risks and dangers first. Then when you are ready, we guide you on making the most of the God-given internal and external means towards health. With that optimal health you can more fully live out the joys of God’s blessings of life. Even if some past condition has left hindrances to that life fulfillment, we can help you make the most of your gifts.
Eduardo A. Albornoz, Alberto A. Amarilla, Naphak Modhiran, Sandra Parker, Xaria X. Li, Danushka K. Wijesundara, Julio Aguado, Adriana Pliego Zamora, Christopher L. D. McMillan, Benjamin Liang, Nias Y. G. Peng, Julian D. J. Sng, Fatema Tuj Saima, Jenny N. Fung, John D. Lee, Devina Paramitha, Rhys Parry, Michael S. Avumegah, Ariel Isaacs, Martin W. Lo, Zaray Miranda-Chacon, Daniella Bradshaw, Constanza Salinas-Rebolledo, Niwanthi W. Rajapakse, Ernst J. Wolvetang, Trent P. Munro, Alejandro Rojas-Fernandez, Paul R. Young, Katryn J. Stacey, Alexander A. Khromykh, Keith J. Chappell, Daniel Watterson, Trent M. Woodruff. SARS-CoV-2 drives NLRP3 inflammasome activation in human microglia through spike protein. Molecular Psychiatry, 2022; DOI: 10.1038/s41380-022-01831-0
Thanks to Science Daily (APA citation):
University of Queensland. (2022, November 1). ‘A silent killer’ — COVID-19 shown to trigger inflammation in the brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 2, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/11/221101100735.htm
Sanctuary Functional Medicine, under the direction of Dr Eric Potter, IFMCP MD, provides functional medicine services to Nashville, Middle Tennessee and beyond. We frequently treat patients from Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Ohio, Indiana, and more... offering the hope of healthier more abundant lives to those with chronic illness.