New research has shown that SARS-CoV-2, in a test tube at least, interacts with certain proteins that are abundant in the brain and speeds up the formation of amyloid fibrils, a hallmark of Parkinson's disease. While the link remains hazy, this observation could potentially explain how relatively young COVID-19 patients have developed Parkinson’s disease soon after contracting the virus.
As reported in the journal ACS Chemical Neuroscience, scientists from the University of Twente in the Netherlands carried out in vitro experiments that found that the SARS-CoV-2 N-protein interacts with a neuronal protein called α-synuclein and speeds the formation of amyloid fibrils.
In Parkinson’s disease, α-synuclein forms into amyloid fibrils. Unable to degrade, these abnormal amyloid fibrils accumulate and result in the death of surrounding dopamine-producing neurons. It appears that certain SARS-CoV-2 proteins may also be linked to this process, speeding up the formation of amyloid fibrils. However, it's important to note this has only been identified in test tube experiments so far and it has yet to be confirmed whether a similar phenomenon would occur in a real human brain.
That said, this latest study isn’t the first to raise concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on the brain. It’s well-established that COVID-19 causes an array of neurological symptoms: it results in a loss of smell, it causes “brain fog,” and memory problems. Curiously, a loss of smell is also one of the first signs of Parkison’s disease. They have even discovered SARS-CoV-2 in the brains of people who have died from COVID-19.
In a small handful of isolated instances, COVID-19 has also appeared to be linked to the emergence of probable Parkinson's disease. In one such case, a 45-year-old man in Israel was hospitalized after falling ill with COVID-19 in early March 2020. After eventually testing negative, he started to experience difficulties speaking and writing text messages on his smartphone, as well as episodes of tremors in his right hand. Two months after he was first infected, the man was diagnosed with parkinsonism (any condition that causes Parkinson’s-like movement abnormalities). Since then he has further declined and now has unreadable handwriting, extreme tremors on his right side, and reduced facial expression.
Some scientists have gone as far as to suggest the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could potentially bring a tsunami of dementia cases in the coming years and decades. Many unknowns remain, however. In light of these concerns, scientists have launched a massive international study to understand the long-term neurological effects of this relatively new disease.