1.1 Contextual background
Patients suffering from COVID-19 exhibit multi-system organ failure involving not only pulmonary1 but also cardiovascular,2 neural,3 and other systems. The pleiotropy and complexity of the organ system failures both complicate the care of COVID-19 patients and contribute, to a great extent, to the morbidity and mortality of the pandemic.4 Severe COVID-19 most commonly manifests as viral pneumonia-induced acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).5 Respiratory failure results from severe inflammation in the lungs, which arises when SARS-CoV-2 infects lung cells. Cardiac manifestations are multifactorial and include hypoxia, hypotension, enhanced inflammatory status, angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor downregulation, endogenous catecholamine adrenergic activation, and direct viral-induced myocardial damage.6, 7 Moreover, patients with underlying cardiovascular disease or comorbidities, including congestive heart failure, hypertension, diabetes, and pulmonary diseases, are more susceptible to infection by SARS-CoV-2, with higher mortality.6, 7
In addition to respiratory and cardiac manifestations, it has been reported that approximately one-third of patients with COVID-19 develop neurological symptoms, including headache, disturbed consciousness, and paresthesias.8 Brain tissue edema, stroke, neuronal degeneration, and neuronal encephalitis have also been reported.2, 8–10 In a recent study, diffuse neural inflammatory markers were found in >80% of COVID-19 patient brains, processes which could contribute to the observed neurological symptoms.11 Furthermore, another pair of frequent symptoms of infection by SARS-CoV-2 are hyposmia and hypogeusia, the loss of the ability to smell and taste, respectively.3 Interestingly, hyposmia has been reported in early-stage Alzheimer’s disease (AD),3 and AD type II astrocytosis has been observed in neuropathology studies of COVID-19 patients.10
Systemic failure in COVID-19 patients is likely due to SARS-CoV-2 invasion via the ACE2 receptor,9 which is highly expressed in pericytes of human heart8 and epithelial cells of the respiratory tract,12 kidney, intestine, and blood vessels. ACE2 is also expressed in the brain, especially in the respiratory center and hypothalamus in the brain stem, the thermal center, and cortex,13 which renders these tissues more vulnerable to viral invasion, although it remains uncertain whether SARS-CoV-2 virus directly infects neurons in the brain.14 The primary consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection are inflammatory responses and oxidative stress in multiple organs and tissues.15–17 Recently it has been shown that the high neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio observed in critically ill patients with COVID-19 is associated with excessive levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and ROS-induced tissue damage, contributing to COVID-19 disease severity.15
Recent studies have reported an inverse relationship between ACE2 and transforming growth factor-β (TGF-β). In cancer models, decreased levels of ACE2 correlated with increased levels of TGF-β.18 In the context of SARS-CoV-2 infection, downregulation of ACE2 has been observed, leading to increased fibrosis formation, as well as upregulation of TGF-β and other inflammatory pathways.19 Moreover, patients with severe COVID-19 symptoms had higher blood serum TGF-β concentrations than those with mild symptoms,20 thus further implicating the role of TGF-β and warranting further investigation.
Interestingly, reduced angiotensin/ACE2 activity has been associated with tau hyperphosphorylation and increased amyloid beta (Aβ) pathology in animal models of AD.21, 22 The link between reduced ACE2 activity and increased TGF-β and tau signaling in the context of SARS-CoV-2 infection needs further exploration.
Our laboratory has shown that stress-induced ryanodine receptor (RyR)/intracellular calcium release channel post-translational modifications, including oxidation and protein kinase A (PKA) hyperphosphorylation related to activation of the sympathetic nervous system and the resulting hyper-adrenergic state, deplete the channel stabilizing protein (calstabin) from the channel complex, destabilizing the closed state of the channel and causing RyR channels to leak Ca2+ out of the endoplasmic/sarcoplasmic reticulum (ER/SR) in multiple diseases.23–29 Increased TGF-β activity can lead to RyR modification and leaky channels,30 and SR Ca2+ leak can cause mitochondrial Ca2+ overload and dysfunction.29 Increased TGF-β activity31 and mitochondrial dysfunction32 are also associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Here we show that SARS-CoV-2 infection is associated with adrenergic and oxidative stress and activation of the TGF-β signaling pathway in the brains of patients who have succumbed to COVID-19. One consequence of this hyper-adrenergic and oxidative state is the development of tau pathology normally associated with AD. In this article, we investigate potential biochemical pathways linked to tau hyperphosphorylation. Based on recent evidence that has linked tau pathology to Ca2+ dysregulation associated with leaky RyR channels in the brain,3, 33 we investigated RyR2 biochemistry and function in COVID-19 patient brains.
Systematic review: The authors reviewed the literature using PubMed. While the mechanisms that lead to cognitive impairment associated with COVID-19 are not well understood, there have been recent reports studying SARS-CoV-2 infection and brain biochemistry and neuropathology. These relevant citations are appropriately cited.
Interpretation: Our findings link the inflammatory response to SARS-CoV-2 infection with the neuropathological pathways causing tau hyperphosphorylation typically associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Furthermore, our data indicate a role for leaky ryanodine receptor 2 (RyR2) in the pathophysiology of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Future directions: The article proposes that the alteration of cellular calcium dynamics due to leaky RyR2 in COVID-19 brains is associated with the activation of neuropathological pathways that are also found in the brains of AD patients. Both the cortex and cerebellum of SARS-CoV-2–infected patients exhibited a reduced expression of the Ca2+ buffering protein calbindin. Decreased calbindin could render these tissues more vulnerable to cytosolic Ca2+ overload. Ex vivo treatment of the COVID-19 brain using a Rycal drug (ARM210) that targets RyR2 channels prevented intracellular Ca2+ leak in patient samples. Future experiments will explore calcium channels as a potential therapeutic target for the neurological complications associated with COVID-19.
1.2 Study conclusions and disease implications
Our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 infection activates inflammatory signaling and oxidative stress pathways resulting in hyperphosphorylation of tau, but normal amyloid precursor protein (APP) processing in COVID-19 patient cortex and cerebellum. There was reduced calbindin expression in both cortex and cerebellum rendering both tissues vulnerable to Ca2+-mediated pathology. Moreover, COVID-19 cortex and cerebellum exhibited RyR Ca2+ release channels with the biochemical signature of ‘‘leaky’’ channels and increased activity consistent with pathological intracellular Ca2+ leak. RyR2 were oxidized, associated with increased NADPH oxidase 2 (NOX2), and were PKA hyperphosphorylated on serine 2808, both of which cause loss of the stabilizing subunit calstabin2 from the channel complex promoting leaky RyR2 channels in COVID-19 patient brains. Furthermore, ex vivo treatment of COVID-19 patient brain samples with the Rycal drug ARM210, which is currently undergoing clinical testing at the National Institutes of Health for RyR1-myopathy (ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT04141670), fixed the channel leak. Thus, our experiments demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 infection activates biochemical pathways linked to the tau pathology associated with AD and that leaky RyR Ca2+ channels may be a potential therapeutic target for the neurological complications associated with COVID-19.
The molecular basis of how SARS-CoV-2 infection results in ‘‘long COVID’’ is not well understood, and questions regarding the role of defective Ca2+ signaling in the brain in COVID-19 remain unanswered. A recent comprehensive molecular investigation revealed extensive inflammation and degeneration in the brains of patients that died from COVID-19,34 including in patients with no reported neurological symptoms. These authors also reported overlap between marker genes of AD and genes that are upregulated in COVID-19 infection, consistent with the findings of increased tau pathophysiology reported in the present study. We propose a potential mechanism that may contribute to the neurological complications caused by SARS-CoV-2: defective intracellular Ca2+ regulation and activation of AD-like neuropathology.
TGF-β belongs to a family of cytokines involved in the formation of cellular fibrosis by promoting epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition, fibroblast proliferation, and differentiation.35 TGF-β activation has been shown to induce fibrosis in the lungs and other organs by activation of the SMAD-dependent pathway. We have previously reported that TGF-β/SMAD3 activation leads to NOX2/4 translocation to the cytosol and its association with RyR channels, promoting oxidization of the channels and depletion of the stabilizing subunit calstabin in skeletal muscle and in heart.28, 30 Alteration of Ca2+ signaling may be particularly crucial in COVID-19-infected patients with cardiovascular/neurological diseases due, in part, to the multifactorial RyR2 remodeling after the cytokine storm, increased TGF-β activation, and increased oxidative stress. Moreover, SARS-CoV-2–infected patients exhibited a hyperadrenergic state. The elevated expression of glutamate carboxypeptidase 2 (GCPII) in COVID-19 brains reported in the present study could also contribute directly to increased PKA signaling of RyR2 by reducing PKA inhibition via metabotropic glutamate receptor 3 (mGluR3).36 Hyperphosphorylation of RyR2 channels can promote pathological remodeling of the channel and exacerbate defective Ca2+ regulation in these tissues. The increased Ca2+/cAMP/PKA signaling could also open nearby K+ channels which could potentially weaken synaptic connectivity, reduce neuronal firing,36 and could activate Ca2+ dependent enzymes.
Interestingly, both the cortex and cerebellum of SARS-CoV–2-infected patients exhibited a reduced expression of the Ca2+ buffering protein calbindin. Decreased calbindin could render these tissues more vulnerable to the cytosolic Ca2+ overload. This finding is in accordance with previous studies showing reduced calbindin expression levels in Purkinje cells and the CA2 hippocampal region of AD patients37–39 and in cortical pyramidal cells of aged individuals with tau pathology.33, 40 In contrast to the findings in the brains of COVID-19 patients in the present study, calbindin was not reduced in the cerebellum of AD patients, possibly protecting these cells from AD pathology.39, 41
Leaky RyR channels, leading to increased mitochondrial Ca2+ overload and ROS production and oxidative stress, have been shown to contribute to the development of tau pathology associated with AD.3, 23–29, 33 Recent studies of the effects of COVID-19 on the central nervous system have found memory deficits and biological markers similar to those seen in AD patients.42, 43 Our data demonstrate increased activity of enzymes responsible for phosphorylating tau (pAMPK, pGSK3β), as well as increased phosphorylation at multiple sites on tau in COVID-19 patient brains. The tau phosphorylation observed in these samples exhibited some differences from what is typically observed in AD, occurring in younger patients and in areas of the brain, specifically the cerebellum, that usually do not demonstrate tau pathology in AD patients. Taken together, these data suggest a potential contributing mechanism to the development of tau pathology in COVID-19 patients involving oxidative overload-driven RyR2 channel dysfunction. Furthermore, we propose that these pathological changes could be a significant contributing factor to the neurological manifestations of COVID-19 and in particular the “brain fog” associated with long COVID, and represent a potential therapeutic target for ameliorating these symptoms. For example, tau pathology in the cerebellum could explain the recent finding that 74% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients experienced coordination deficits.44 The data presented also raise the possibility that prior COVID-19 infection could be a potential risk factor for developing AD in the future.
The present study was limited to the use of existing autopsy brain tissues at the Columbia University Biobank from SARS-CoV-2–infected patients. The number of subjects is small and information on their cognitive function as well as their brain histopathology and levels of Aβ in cerebrospinal fluid and plasma are lacking. Furthermore, we did not have access to a suitable animal model of SARS-CoV-2 infection in which to test whether the observed biochemical changes in COVID-19 brains and potential cognitive and behavioral deficits associated with the brain fog of long COVID could be reversed or attenuated by therapeutic interventions. The design of future studies should include larger numbers of subjects that are age- and sex-matched. The cognitive function of SARS-CoV-2–infected patients who presented cognitive symptoms should be assessed and regularly monitored. Moreover, it is important to know whether the observed neuropathological signaling is unique to SARS-CoV-2 infection or are common to all other viral infections. Previous studies have reported cognitive impairment in Middle East respiratory syndrome45 as well as Ebola46, 47 patients. Retrospective studies comparing the incidence and the magnitude of cognitive impairments caused by these different viral infections would improve our understanding of these neurological complications of viral infections.