2. How the Brain Is Being Affected
The brain and central nervous system are also showing unique symptoms in response to COVID-19. Frontera and other medical professionals have witnessed strokes, seizures, loss of consciousness, loss of the sense of smell, encephalitis (brain inflammation) and “sympathetic storms” in COVID-19 patients. These “sympathetic storms” are when the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, similar to what happens after serious brain injury. Clinicians wonder if the infection is blocking the brain from recognizing the lack of oxygen in the blood. This could explain why patients aren’t struggling to breathe despite their blood oxygen levels being so low.
Physician Robert Stevens from Johns Hopkins Medicine has confirmed that the brain stem and neural cortex contain ACE2 receptors, but it’s unknown if the virus is able to enter these receptors through the brain. The damage in the brain could be from the cytokine storm or the blood clots and not the virus directly. However, the SARS virus was able to penetrate neurons, and a recent case study in Japan found that the coronavirus had infiltrated the central nervous system through cerebrospinal fluid.
At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Sherry Chou has started a research group with 50 other centers to try to gather neurological data to further understand how the virus affects the brain and the nervous system.
1. Reaching the Gut
The American Journal of Gastroenterology (AJG) reported that a woman from Michigan contracted the virus after returning home sick from Africa. Her symptoms were vomiting, coughing, bloody diarrhea, and stomach cramps. She tested positive for coronavirus and they also found a gastrointestinal infection (GI) and signs of colon damage. This case is one of many that suggests the virus can cause great damage to the lower digestive tract, a region rich in ACE2 receptors.
Studies have found that more than half of infected patients have viral RNA in their stool, meaning the virus is replicating in the gastrointestinal tract. Diarrhea is present in about 20% of patients, but currently, gastrointestinal symptoms aren’t included on the CDC’s list of coronavirus symptoms. The concern over RNA in feces is that it could also contain the virus. The CDC has not seen this with SARS and other related viruses, so they believe this chance is very low.
Right now, the limited research available is only able to provide theories about the effects of COVID-19 on the body. Even as researchers are working hard to understand the virus, a true picture is still years away. The number one priority right now is a vaccine and treatments to combat the virus. After this, we can begin the long journey of discovering how and why the virus is affecting the whole body and in turn, the whole world.Related: 6 New Coronavirus Symptoms the CDC Wants You to Know