A report published in Nature on 04/09/23 summarized what is currently known about the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the body after a COVID infection and what effect this might have. The researchers found that the spike protein of the COVID-19 virus can directly bind to and block certain receptors in the brainstem called neuropilin-1 receptors. The brainstem controls important functions like breathing, heart rate, and sleeping.
By analysing human brainstem cells and doing experiments in mice, the researchers showed that the spike protein could impair signalling and reduce sensitivity to carbon dioxide levels. This provides a potential explanation for respiratory failure seen in severe COVID-19.
The spike protein was also found to interfere with a signalling process called metabotropic glutamate receptor signalling. This is key for regulating many brainstem functions. Blocking this pathway could contribute to symptoms like fatigue, headaches, and brain fog observed in long COVID patients.
Overall, this study suggests the COVID spike protein can directly act on receptors in the brainstem and disrupt critical signalling involved in breathing, wakefulness, heart function and other neurological processes. This gives a biological mechanism for how the spike protein causes both acute respiratory distress in COVID-19 as well as the neurological effects seen in long COVID.
The findings identify the neuropilin-1 receptor as a potential target for treating neurological complications of COVID-19. More research is still needed, but blocking the spike protein from binding to neuropilin-1 receptors could reduce some neurological long COVID symptoms.
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