It’s not just the lungs — COVID-19 can affect the brain and heart of those infected, researchers say

As medical experts learn about the novel coronavirus, which continues to exhibit an array of ever-evolving symptoms and log-term effects, researchers have found that the deadly illness can have deleterious impacts on the heart and brain. 

A recent study published on June 25 in the journal Cell Reports Medicine, found that while COVID-19 is commonly known as a respiratory illness, the disease has also been known to instigate inflammatory responses in the body which can negatively affect the function of one’s heart and brain.

According to the study, researchers observed SARS-CoV-2 infecting human heart cells that were grown from stem cells in a lab. Within 72 hours of infection, the virus managed to spread and replicate, killing the heart cells. 

The researchers brought up the particularly alarming possibility that if COVID-19 can can infect the heart cells in a laboratory setting, it could possibly infect those specific organs, prompting the need for a “cardiac-specific antiviral drug screen program.”

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And those concerns are not unwarranted, according to doctors and other researchers who have been observing and studying the wide range of health problems and negative outcomes that appear to come with the not-yet-fully-known territory of the novel virus.

The most common coronavirus symptoms are fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath — and some people are contagious despite never experiencing symptoms. But as the virus continues to spread, less common symptoms are being reported, including loss of smell, vomiting and diarrhea, along with a variety of skin problems and harmful neurological effects.

A recent report from Dr. Robert Stevens, M.D., the associate director of the Johns Hopkins Precision Medicine Center of Excellence for Neurocritical Care, said that coronavirus patients are continuously experiencing a wide range of disconcerting effects on the brain.

Some of the neural symptoms, according to Johns Hopkins, include: 

  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Stroke
  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Headaches
  • Trouble focusing
  • Changes in behavior

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“Patients are also having peripheral nerve issues, such as Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can lead to paralysis and respiratory failure,” wrote Stevens. "I estimate that at least half of the patients I’m seeing in the COVID-19 units have neurological symptoms."

While medical experts have continuously repeated that more is still being discovered about the virus, Stevens listed some possibilities on how COVID-19, a respiratory illness, is making its way to the brain.

“The first possible way is that the virus may have the capacity to enter the brain and cause a severe and sudden infection. Cases reported in China and Japan found the virus’s genetic material in spinal fluid, and a case in Florida found viral particles in brain cells,” Stevens wrote. 

He added that viral particles in the brain and spine may occur when the virus enter the body through a patient’s blood stream or nerve endings. 

The second possibility is that the body’s immune system has an overreaction to the virus, causing severe inflammatory responses that cause organ and tissue damage. 

The third theory is the erratic physiological changes the disease causes in the body, which involve extremely high fever and low oxygen levels in the blood, result in harmful effects to the brain. 

Stevens added that there has been an abnormal observance of blood clotting that has caused some coronavirus patients to suffer strokes. “A stroke could occur if a blood clot were to block or narrow arteries leading to the brain,” he said. 

Another illness that has been known to impact the brain in patients with COVID-19 is currently being studied by Dr. Mady Hornig, an immunologist and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University.

Hornig said that Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) is an illness which has been found in patients who have recovered from coronaviruses such as SARS.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites a 2015 report from the nation’s top medical advisory body, the Institute of Medicine, which says that an estimated 836,000 to 2.5 million Americans suffer from ME/CFS.

The CDC says that people with ME/CFS experience severe fatigue, sleep problems, as well as difficulty with thinking and concentrating while experiencing pain and dizziness.

Hornig said SARS-CoV-1 and MERS have been associated with longer-term difficulties, in which many people appeared to have symptoms of ME/CFS.

Hornig is currently researching the long-term effects of COVID-19, and has been confronted with an array of concerning symptoms that have persisted in patients, as well as herself. 

She can personally attest to the variety of symptoms that have been reported in coronavirus patients, ever since she began to experience her own COVID-19 symptoms in April that have continued to impact her daily life for the past few months. 

She has also experienced cardiac complications while dealing with the illness.

Since getting sick, Hornig said she’s had to carry a pulse oximeter with her, a device which registers her pulse since she began to have tachycardia episodes when her fever began to decline. Tachycardia is a condition that can make a person’s heart beat abnormally fast, reducing blood flow to the rest of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Hornig’s most recent episode was on June 22. Her pulse registered at 135 beats per minute, which she said occurred just from her sitting at her computer. She said a normal pulse for someone her age would be around 60-70 beats per minute.

The findings on the novel virus’ potential effects on the heart and brain come as the CDC continues to update its list of coronavirus symptoms and high-risk conditions for COVID-19 complications.

Notably, the CDC also removed the specific age threshold from the older adult classification. “CDC now warns that among adults, risk increases steadily as you age, and it’s not just those over the age of 65 who are at increased risk for severe illness,” the agency wrote.

Johns Hopkins has noted that younger patients in their 30s and 40s are reportedly having strokes as a result of COVID-19. 

“It may have something to do with the hyperactive blood-clotting system in these patients,” Stevens said. “Another system that is hyper-activated in patients with COVID-19 is the endothelial system, which consists of the cells that form the barrier between blood vessels and body tissue. This system is more biologically active in younger patients, and the combination of hyperactive endothelial and blood-clotting systems puts these patients at a major risk for developing blood clots.”

But Stevens cautioned that more conclusive data is needed before the medical community can say with assurance that younger people are particularly susceptible to strokes caused by the novel coronavirus. 

“It is also plausible that there’s an increase in stroke in COVID-19 patients of all ages,” Stevens said.