Researchers at The University of Queensland have made an important discovery suggesting that viruses like SARS-CoV-2 can cause brain cells to fuse, leading to chronic neurological symptoms. The team, led by Professor Massimo Hilliard and Dr Ramon Martinez-Marmol from the Queensland Brain Institute, investigated how viruses affect the nervous system.
Their research found that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, was present in the brains of people with long-term COVID symptoms, even months after the initial infection. They observed a unique process in which infected neurons fused together, resulting in synchronized firing or complete loss of function.
To explain this fusion, Professor Hilliard compared neurons to wires connecting switches to kitchen and bathroom lights. When fusion occurs, both lights either turn on or stay off, disrupting their independent circuits.
This discovery provides a potential explanation for persistent neurological symptoms seen in viral infections. Dr Martinez-Marmol noted that while cell death and inflammation are known outcomes of viruses entering the brain, their research revealed a third possibility: neuronal fusion. They suggested that various viruses, such as HIV, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, measles, herpes simplex virus, and Zika virus, can cause cell fusion in other tissues and may contribute to similar problems in the nervous system.
The researchers emphasized the significance of this newly identified mechanism in understanding the neurological consequences of viral infections. They believe it could shed light on the development of neurological diseases and associated symptoms that are still not well understood. The study involved collaborations with other experts, including Professor Lars Ittner, Associate Professor Yazi Ke, Associate Professor Giuseppe Balistreri, Associate Professor Kirsty Short, and Professor Frederic Meunier.
The research findings were published in the journal Science Advances.