Human Coronaviruses and Other Respiratory Viruses: Underestimated Opportunistic Pathogens of the Central Nervous System?

Viruses. 2019 Dec 20;12(1):14. doi: 10.3390/v12010014.


Respiratory viruses infect the human upper respiratory tract, mostly causing mild diseases. However, in vulnerable populations, such as newborns, infants, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals, these opportunistic pathogens can also affect the lower respiratory tract, causing a more severe disease (e.g., pneumonia). Respiratory viruses can also exacerbate asthma and lead to various types of respiratory distress syndromes. Furthermore, as they can adapt fast and cross the species barrier, some of these pathogens, like influenza A and SARS-CoV, have occasionally caused epidemics or pandemics, and were associated with more serious clinical diseases and even mortality. For a few decades now, data reported in the scientific literature has also demonstrated that several respiratory viruses have neuroinvasive capacities, since they can spread from the respiratory tract to the central nervous system (CNS). Viruses infecting human CNS cells could then cause different types of encephalopathy, including encephalitis, and long-term neurological diseases. Like other well-recognized neuroinvasive human viruses, respiratory viruses may damage the CNS as a result of misdirected host immune responses that could be associated with autoimmunity in susceptible individuals (virus-induced neuro-immunopathology) and/or viral replication, which directly causes damage to CNS cells (virus-induced neuropathology). The etiological agent of several neurological disorders remains unidentified. Opportunistic human respiratory pathogens could be associated with the triggering or the exacerbation of these disorders whose etiology remains poorly understood. Herein, we present a global portrait of some of the most prevalent or emerging human respiratory viruses that have been associated with possible pathogenic processes in CNS infection, with a special emphasis on human coronaviruses.

Keywords: CNS infection; acute and chronic neurological diseases; encephalitis; encephalopathy; human coronavirus; human respiratory virus; neuroinvasion; respiratory viral infection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / virology*
  • Central Nervous System Viral Diseases / complications
  • Central Nervous System Viral Diseases / virology
  • Coronavirus / pathogenicity*
  • Coronavirus / physiology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / complications
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology*
  • Encephalitis, Viral / complications
  • Encephalitis, Viral / virology
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / complications
  • Nervous System Diseases / virology
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / complications
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / virology*
  • Virus Replication

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