Mapping of SARS-CoV-2 Brain Invasion and Histopathology in COVID-19 Disease

medRxiv [Preprint]. 2021 Feb 18:2021.02.15.21251511. doi: 10.1101/2021.02.15.21251511.


The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (SCV2) causes acute respiratory distress, termed COVID-19 disease, with substantial morbidity and mortality. As SCV2 is related to previously-studied coronaviruses that have been shown to have the capability for brain invasion, it seems likely that SCV2 may be able to do so as well. To date, although there have been many clinical and autopsy-based reports that describe a broad range of SCV2-associated neurological conditions, it is unclear what fraction of these have been due to direct CNS invasion versus indirect effects caused by systemic reactions to critical illness. Still critically lacking is a comprehensive tissue-based survey of the CNS presence and specific neuropathology of SCV2 in humans. We conducted an extensive neuroanatomical survey of RT-PCR-detected SCV2 in 16 brain regions from 20 subjects who died of COVID-19 disease. Targeted areas were those with cranial nerve nuclei, including the olfactory bulb, medullary dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus nerve and the pontine trigeminal nerve nuclei, as well as areas possibly exposed to hematogenous entry, including the choroid plexus, leptomeninges, median eminence of the hypothalamus and area postrema of the medulla. Subjects ranged in age from 38 to 97 (mean 77) with 9 females and 11 males. Most subjects had typical age-related neuropathological findings. Two subjects had severe neuropathology, one with a large acute cerebral infarction and one with hemorrhagic encephalitis, that was unequivocally related to their COVID-19 disease while most of the 18 other subjects had non-specific histopathology including focal β-amyloid precursor protein white matter immunoreactivity and sparse perivascular mononuclear cell cuffing. Four subjects (20%) had SCV2 RNA in one or more brain regions including the olfactory bulb, amygdala, entorhinal area, temporal and frontal neocortex, dorsal medulla and leptomeninges. The subject with encephalitis was SCV2-positive in a histopathologically-affected area, the entorhinal cortex, while the subject with the large acute cerebral infarct was SCV2-negative in all brain regions. Like other human coronaviruses, SCV2 can inflict acute neuropathology in susceptible patients. Much remains to be understood, including what viral and host factors influence SCV2 brain invasion and whether it is cleared from the brain subsequent to the acute illness.

Keywords: RT-PCR; coronavirus; encephalitis; hemorrhage; hypoxia; infarction; neuropathology.

Publication types

  • Preprint