June 8, 2022—(BRONX, NY)—Albert Einstein College of Medicine researchers have been awarded a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the effects of COVID-19 on the brains of adults who had mild or asymptomatic infection. Using neuroimaging, cognitive, and immunological tests, the investigators will examine if SARS-CoV-2 infection induces lasting changes in the brain and affects neurocognitive function.
“It’s well-accepted that the brain is affected by the novel coronavirus, but most studies on long COVID have focused on older people who have had severe disease,” said Michael L. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., co-principal investigator on the grant, professor of radiology and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and associate professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience at Einstein. “Our study is different because we have access to pre-pandemic brain imaging and in-depth cognitive assessments from hundreds of previously healthy, racially and ethnically diverse young men and women in their 20s and 30s who have participated in other Einstein studies.”
Dr. Lipton noted, “This baseline data will allow us to discover if and how SARS-CoV-2 infection—even if mild or asymptomatic—causes changes in brain structure and function that contribute to long COVID symptoms.” Dr. Lipton is also associate director of Einstein’s Gruss Magnetic Resonance Research Center, and medical director of MRI Services at Montefiore Health System.
A “Natural History” of Brain Changes
The researchers will divide 140 study participants into three groups: 70 people who were never infected with SARS-CoV-2; 35 people who, based on laboratory tests, were infected but who were not symptomatic; and 35 people who were infected and had mild COVID-19 symptoms and did not require hospitalization. Participants will undergo physical and neurological examinations, cognitive and psychiatric assessments, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests. They will also provide blood samples at several points during the three-year study.
“By looking at participants’ blood serum and immune cells, we will attempt to identify the cellular mechanisms related to their immune response and determine their association with brain changes or cognitive issues,” said Johanna Daily, M.D., M.S., co-principal investigator on the grant, professor of medicine and of microbiology & immunology at Einstein and an infectious disease physician at Montefiore. “We hope this leads to the discovery of biomarkers that can diagnose long COVID and inform treatment approaches.”
Pandemic Stress and Long-Term Impact of COVID-19
The researchers also will study whether the stress of the pandemic itself contributed to changes in the brain or cognition in all study participants, whether or not they were infected. “We’re going to home in on things like loneliness, social support, mood, anxiety, and changes in socioeconomic status,” said Dr. Lipton. “The goal is to tease out the effects of the pandemic from the effects of a SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
Dr. Lipton added that identifying subtle effects of SARS-CoV-2 on the brain that are undetectable by physicians or patients themselves may help clinicians predict what may be a looming public health issue. “SARS-CoV-2 infection may negatively affect current brain functioning and presage future neurodegeneration and dysfunction,” Dr. Lipton said. “Understanding the mechanisms and potentially developing targeted treatment could head off future problems.”
The grant, titled, “Characterizing persistent subclinical neurobehavioral effects of COVID-19 in a diverse urban population,” is funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, part of the National Institutes of Health (1R01NS123445).
About Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Albert Einstein College of Medicine is one of the nation’s premier centers for research, medical education and clinical investigation. During the 2021-22 academic year, Einstein is home to 732 M.D. students, 190 Ph.D. students, 120 students in the combined M.D./Ph.D. program, and approximately 250 postdoctoral research fellows. The College of Medicine has more than 1,900 full-time faculty members located on the main campus and at its clinical affiliates. In 2021, Einstein received more than $185 million in awards from the National Institutes of Health. This includes the funding of major research centers at Einstein in cancer, aging, intellectual development disorders, diabetes, clinical and translational research, liver disease, and AIDS. Other areas where the College of Medicine is concentrating its efforts include developmental brain research, neuroscience, cardiac disease, and initiatives to reduce and eliminate ethnic and racial health disparities. Its partnership with Montefiore, the University Hospital and academic medical center for Einstein, advances clinical and translational research to accelerate the pace at which new discoveries become the treatments and therapies that benefit patients. For more information, please visit einsteinmed.org, read our blog, follow us on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and view us on YouTube.