Post-COVID: Bonn Researchers Study Effects of Corona on the Brain

DZNE coordinates EU-funded study

Bonn/Germany, March 5th, 2024. Under the lead of DZNE, scientists from Bonn, Berlin and Milan are investigating the causes of neurological complaints that occur in temporal association with a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Individuals with such a “neurological post-COVID syndrome” who are interested in participating in this study can contact the Department of Neurology at the University Hospital Bonn (UKB). Adults who have had a corona infection but do not show related neurological symptoms may also join as controls.

“Post-COVID syndrome” is a collective term for a variety of health problems that can persist for more than three months after a corona infection. The current study focuses on a subset of these symptomatology, specifically neurological complaints. “We want to better understand this clinical picture and thus pave the way for more effective treatment,” explains Joachim Schultze, Director of Systems Medicine at DZNE and professor at the University of Bonn. “Our study is aimed at individuals whose mental performance has declined in temporal association with corona infection. This can include memory and concentration problems, but also other symptoms that indicate impaired brain function. Such as word-finding difficulties or problems in planning and carrying out complex tasks.”

Focus on the immune system

The causes of such after-effects of a corona infection are as yet unclear. However, Schultze’s team is following up on a specific hypothesis. “According to current knowledge, the corona virus does not usually reach the brain. Therefore, we suspect that it is indirectly affected. Namely, through the immune system’s reaction to the corona infection. The immune response releases masses of inflammatory mediators. These can get into the brain and, in a sense, cause collateral damage, even if the virus does not go all the way there,” says Schultze. Even if a corona infection occurred some time ago, the immune system can still be in an altered state, he reckons.

Molecular fingerprint

The research team will apply state-of-the-art technology to get to the bottom of these causes. Blood samples from the study participants play a central role in this. “We use so-called transcriptomics to determine the activity of white blood cells, i.e. the activity of the immune cells in the blood, and we use this to create a kind of molecular fingerprint,” says Schultze. “This allows us to detect disease-related changes in the immune system that conventional laboratory techniques cannot.”

To participate in the study

“For volunteers, study participation includes a comprehensive examination of their cognitive abilities, the collection of blood and, if necessary, cerebrospinal fluid from the back,” says Prof. Gabor Petzold, a neurologist at UKB and head of the clinical study team. This requires a total of three visits to UKB within one year. In order to identify relevant changes in the immune system of patients, it is necessary to examine not only patients but also so-called controls who have had a corona a infection, but do not show neurological symptoms as a result of the infection. Anyone interested in participating can contact the study team via the website (German).

European network: The study is part of the activities of the European research consortium NeuroCOV, which is led by DZNE. Experts from various disciplines are collaborating across countries within this framework to decipher the neurological and psychiatric after-effects of corona infection. In Germany, the Charité - Universitätsmedizin Berlin is also involved, and in Italy the “Human Technopole” research center, which cooperates with two Milan hospitals. In addition to clinical studies, laboratory tests on artificial brain tissue - so-called brain organoids - are also performed in Italy. The project network is funded by the European Union.

About the Deutsches Zentrum für Neurodegenerative Erkrankungen, DZNE (German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases): DZNE is a research institute for neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, which are associated with dementia, movement disorders and other serious health impairments. To date, there are no cures for these diseases, which represent an enormous burden for countless affected individuals, their families, and the healthcare system. The aim of DZNE is to develop novel strategies for prevention, diagnosis, care, as well as treatment, and to transfer them into practice. DZNE comprises ten sites across Germany, it cooperates with universities, university hospitals, research centers and other institutions in Germany and abroad. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association and of the German Centers for Health Research.

Media relations

Dr. Marcus Neitzert
+49 228 43302-267

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