A growing body of research suggests that widespread COVID infections could lead to an uptick in serious neurological disorders like Parkinson’s in the coming years.
As Salon reported, researchers continue to uncover new information about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus responsible for the global COVID-19 pandemic. Since March 2020, the virus has caused a staggering 104.3 million cases in the United States (and claimed the lives of 1.1 million Americans).
Thanks to the availability of COVID-19 vaccines, new infections are largely under control stateside. In fact, the U.S. government will end its COVID-19 public health emergency declaration on May 11 of this year.
But the COVID story doesn’t end here. We can’t talk about the virus without addressing Long COVID, a syndrome that — as the name suggests — persists long after an acute infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this condition impacts an estimated one in five Americans who had COVID. Common Long COVID symptoms include fatigue that interferes with daily life, fevers, or symptoms that worsen after physical or mental activity.
Other viruses, such as Lyme disease, Epstein Barr virus, and the Spanish flu of 1918, are also associated with post-acute infection syndromes. However, these conditions have historically been understudied and under-diagnosed. It’s likely that Long COVID is even more prevalent than scientists know — and with recent research establishing a link between COVID infections and neurodegenerative diseases, there’s more impetus than ever to understand the long-term effects of this virus.
How can COVID-19 infections lead to Parkinson’s disease?
Although it may seem outlandish to link COVID infections to the development of Parkinson’s disease, multiple studies have actually established how this could occur. Per Salon’s analysis of these reports, COVID can trigger certain proteins in the body to fold abnormally, which causes irreparable damage on a cellular level.
The misfolding of one particular protein, alpha-synuclein, is a “hallmark” of many neurodegenerative diseases, including Lewy body dementia, multiple system atrophy, and yes, Parkinson’s disease. And clumps of this protein have been discovered in some Long COVID patients.
Scientists know that alpha-synuclein misfolding can be caused by viral infections like COVID. This means that Long COVID symptoms could be evidence of patients developing a neurological disease.
Preliminary research on animals has substantiated this theory — including one study published in the journal Movement Disorders, which found that infection with COVID made mice’s brains more vulnerable to toxic protein compounds that cause Parkinson’s.
Speaking to Salon, Dr. Richard Smeyne, who led the aforementioned study and chairs the department of neuroscience at Thomas Jefferson University, said he predicts “a 30-50 percent increase in Parkinson’s risk for those moderately to severely infected with the Alpha [COVID] variant.”
“While on an individual basis this only changes a person’s risk from 2 percent to 3 percent for developing Parkinson’s, over the whole of the population we would expect to see millions more develop Parkinon’s disease than would have if not for their COVID infection,” he added.
The potential long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unclear.
Smeyne did note that there is “a considerable period” of time, sometimes “about a decade,” between exposure to a virus and the development of a disease like Parkinson’s. That lag time will give scientists a chance to continue studying COVID and hopefully develop interventions to stop infections from progressing to full-blown neurological diseases.
TL;DR: The medical community still doesn’t understand the long-term effects of COVID-19 on our bodies. And since many Americans have had an acute infection at least once, that’s pretty alarming.
So, while COVID case numbers are trending downward, and the federal government will soon cease its public health emergency declaration, you may want to consider re-implementing some safety precautions to avoid future infections.
The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older stay up-to-date with the latest COVID vaccine. And of course, wearing an effective face mask or shield — especially while indoors with large groups of people, where the virus is most likely to spread — can’t hurt.
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