What is long Covid and what are the known symptoms?
More than three years on since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the full effect of the disease are still not known.
Initially many people were aware of the most common symptoms such as a cough, loss of smell and shortness of breath.
However, over time other side effects began to emerge including neurological changes such as memory problems or “brain fog”.
This is one widely reported symptom of long Covid – a condition affecting around two million people in the UK.
Now scientists have discovered one way in which Covid can result in neurological symptoms.
Research by the University of Queensland in Australia has discovered viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 can cause brain cells to fuse, triggering malfunctions that lead to “chronic” neurological symptoms.
Their study, published in Science Advances journal, found that the virus that causes Covid can make neurons fire at the same time or stop altogether.
In a university release, Professor Massimo Hilliard, explained: “We discovered COVID-19 causes neurons to undergo a cell fusion process, which has not been seen before.
“After neuronal infection with SARS-CoV-2, the spike S protein becomes present in neurons, and once neurons fuse, they don’t die.
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“They either start firing synchronously, or they stop functioning altogether.”
The academic compared the role of neurons to that of wires connecting switches to the lights in a kitchen and a bathroom.
“Once fusion takes place, each switch either turns on both the kitchen and bathroom lights at the same time, or neither of them,” he said.
“It’s bad news for the two independent circuits.”
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The findings provide a potential explanation for lingering neurological effects after a viral infection, such as Covid.
Prof Hilliard’s colleague, Doctor Ramon Martinez-Marmol, said: “In the current understanding of what happens when a virus enters the brain, there are two outcomes – either cell death or inflammation.
“But we’ve shown a third possible outcome, which is neuronal fusion.”
Dr Martinez-Marmol said that numerous viruses cause cell fusion in other tissues, but also infect the nervous system and could be causing the same problem there.
He added: “These viruses include HIV, rabies, Japanese encephalitis, measles, herpes simplex virus and Zika virus.
“Our research reveals a new mechanism for the neurological events that happen during a viral infection.
“This is potentially a major cause of neurological diseases and clinical symptoms that is still unexplored.”
Common symptoms of long Covid are reported as:
- Feeling short of breath
- Loss of smell
- Muscle aches
- Problems with your memory and concentration (“brain fog”)
- Chest pain or tightness
- Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
- Heart palpitations
- Pins and needles
- Joint pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Tinnitus, earaches
- Feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
- A high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
If you think you have long Covid you should speak to your GP.
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