Brain neuronal and glial damage during acute COVID-19 infection in absence of clinical neurological manifestations

Background

To assess whether SARS-CoV-2 infection may affect the central nervous system, specifically neurons and glia cells, even without clinical neurological involvement.

Methods

In this single centre prospective study, serum levels of neurofilament light chain (sNfL) and glial fibrillar acidic protein (sGFAp) were assessed using SimoaTM assay Neurology 2-Plex B Assay Kit, in 148 hospitalised patients with COVID-19 without clinical neurological manifestations and compared them to 53 patients with interstitial pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and 108 healthy controls (HCs).

Results

Age and sex-corrected sNfL levels were higher in patients with COVID-19 (median log10-sNfL 1.41; IQR 1.04–1.83) than patients with IPF (median log10-sNfL 1.18; IQR 0.98–1.38; p<0.001) and HCs (median log10-sNfL 0.89; IQR 0.72–1.14; p<0.001). Likewise, age and sex-corrected sGFAP levels were higher in patients with COVID-19 (median log10-sGFAP 2.26; IQR 2.02–2.53) in comparison with patients with IPF (median log10-sGFAP 2.15; IQR 1.94–2.30; p<0.001) and HCs (median log10-sGFAP 1.87; IQR 0.64–2.09; p<0.001). No significant difference was found between patients with HCs and IPF (p=0.388 for sNfL and p=0.251 for sGFAp). In patients with COVID-19, a prognostic model with mortality as dependent variable (26/148 patients died during hospitalisation) and sNfl, sGFAp and age as independent variables, showed an area under curve of 0.72 (95% CI 0.59 to 0.84; negative predictive value (NPV) (%):80,positive predictive value (PPV)(%): 84; p=0.0008).

Conclusion

The results of our study suggest that neuronal and glial degeneration can occur in patients with COVID-19 regardless of overt clinical neurological manifestations. With age, levels of sNfl and GFAp can predict in-hospital COVID-19-associated mortality and might be useful to assess COVID-19 patient prognostic profile.

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