The virus can stealthily attack the brain, according to a new study.

The virus can stealthily attack the brain, according to a new study.

  • Brain scans of coronavirus patients from a study published in July. Some develop serious neurological complications, including nerve damage, scientists have found. Credit : Ross W. Paterson, Rachel L. Brown, et al./Brain, Oxford University Press

The lungs are the coronavirus’s foremost target in the body, and it has been clear for some time that the virus can attack the kidneys, liver and blood vessels as well. About half of Covid-19 patients also report neurological symptoms, including headaches, confusion and delirium — suggesting that the virus might attack the brain.

A new study offers the first clear evidence that in some people, it does just that, in two ways: The virus invades brain cells, hijacking them to make copies of itself, and it appears to suck up all the oxygen near the host cells, starving other cells to death.

It’s unclear exactly how the virus gets into the brain or how often it touches off this trail of destruction. Infection of the brain is likely to be rare, but some people may be susceptible because of their genetic backgrounds, because of a high viral load or for other reasons.

“If the brain does become infected, it could have a lethal consequence,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University who led the work.