Australian researchers are looking into whether being diagnosed with COVID-19 could increase a person’s risk of developing Parkinson’s later in life prompting a race to develop measures to beat the debilitating disease.
Scientists believe the virus is able to invade the brain and central nervous system, but they are yet to determine how.
Professor Kevin Barnham from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne said it was likely the virus could “cause insult to brain cells, with potential for neurodegeneration to follow on from there”.
Academics are now calling for the development of more diagnostic tools, such as a national screening program, which would help detect neurodegeneration early, as well as a long-term monitoring plan for people who have had COVID-19.
Neurological symptoms in people infected with the virus range from severe, such as a lack of oxygen to the brain, to mild, such as a loss of smell.
While the latter symptom may not cause concern, it can indicate something is happening beneath the surface, Florey Institute researcher Leah Beauchamp explained, such as acute inflammation in the olfactory system, which is responsible for smell.
Inflammation plays a major role in the development of neurodegenerative disease.
Loss of smell presented in about 90 per cent of people in the early stages of Parkinson’s – even a decade ahead – presenting a “new way forward” in detecting someone’s risk of developing the disease early, Ms Beauchamp said.
But the progression of the disease was quite slow and COVID-19 patients wouldn’t expect to see an onset of Parkinson’s until at least five years after being diagnosed with coronavirus, Prof Barnham explained.
“The progression of Parkinson’s is quite slow, however that would vary from individual to individual,” he said.
“We can take insight from the neurological consequences that followed the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 where the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease increased two- to three-fold.
“For Spanish flu patients, symptoms of Parkinson’s generally appeared about five years after diagnosis.”
He said similar neurological developments could unfold down the track.
Achieving a clinical diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease relies on presentation of symptoms akin to motor dysfunction, but by the time these symptoms occur between 50 and 70 per cent of dopamine cell loss in the brain has already occurred, researchers said.
“By waiting until this stage of Parkinson’s disease to diagnose and treat, you’ve already missed the window for neuroprotective therapies to have their intended effect,” Prof Barnham said.
“We are talking about an insidious disease affecting 80,000 people in Australia, which is set to double by 2040 before even considering the potential consequences of COVID, and we currently have no available disease-modifying therapies.”
His team is now pushing for a national screening program, similar to the one Australia has for bowel cancer, in a bid to catch potential cases early.
Prof Barnham anticipates the program would come at a cost of $5-10 million.
“Keeping in mind that the annual cost of Parkinson’s disease is more than $10 billion,” he said.
He also said creating an educational program for GPs was imperative to help them detect symptoms linked to Parkinson’s, such as loss of smell, anxiety and depression.
“They need to be aware of some of these things because some people won’t report a loss of smell, they’ll say their ‘food doesn’t taste quite right’ but taste is 90 per cent smell,” Prof Barnham said.
He also urged Australians not to panic, particularly if they’ve recovered from COVID-19, because a “mosaic” of genetic and environmental risk factors contributed to the development of the disease.
“It’s something we need to be aware of and we need to study more but until we have that data … our intention is not to panic people. We just have to keep monitoring the situation,” he said.
The team will now apply for funding from Federal Government.
“We have to shift community thinking that Parkinson’s not a disease of old age. As we’ve been hearing time and time again, the coronavirus does not discriminate – and neither does Parkinson’s,” Prof Barnham said.