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Canadian and international scientists are joining forces to promote research into how COVID-19 affects the central nervous system, as they strive to understand whether and how the new coronavirus and other respiratory viruses could lead to lasting brain damage.

Brought together as part of a new initiative called VINEx, created by Rocket Science Health, a Victoria-based medical devices company, the group is aiming to lead the charge in understanding how viruses invade the brain – an area of study that has received relatively little attention.

While it is well known that certain viruses, such as HIV and the mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis virus, can enter and damage the central nervous system, much less is known about the potential neurological effects of respiratory viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, said Inez Jabalpurwala, global director of VINEx, and previously the chief executive officer of Montreal-based Brain Canada, a non-profit organization supporting brain research.

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“We don’t really have a clear understanding of how these respiratory viruses may act” on the central nervous system, she said, explaining that virologists and immunologists typically work separately from neuroscientists and neurologists.

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The goal of VINEx, an acronym for Viral Neuro Exploration, is to bring researchers and clinicians from these different camps together to share their knowledge and seek funding for studies, said Ms. Jabalpurwala, who is also senior advisor on brain initiatives for Rocket Science Health, co-founded by Kenneth Irving, former chief executive of Irving Oil. While Rocket Science Health, which develops devices to deliver drugs through the nose to the brain, may play a role in the future development of diagnostic tools and therapeutics for neurological conditions caused by viruses, she said, the company created VINEx as a non-profit, social-impact project, and is interested in this research not just for tackling the current pandemic, but for future ones as well.

“This is an area that has fallen between the cracks,” she said. “Our goal is to be a catalyst to really get much more interest, investment and drive greater collaboration.”

Marc Desforges, a specialist in the virology lab at CHU Sainte-Justine, the pediatric hospital centre affiliated with the University of Montreal, is among the researchers VINEx recruited to its science advisory council. Others include renowned neuroscientist Adrian Owen, a professor of cognitive neuroscience and imaging at the University of Western Ontario, and special advisors Alan Evans, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at McGill University and this year’s recipient of the prestigious Killam Prize, and Avindra Nath, clinical director of the U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Dr. Desforges has been studying the potential for coronaviruses to invade and damage the nervous system for the past two decades.

In January, shortly before the pandemic, he and his team published a paper in the journal Viruses, detailing how respiratory viruses could cause encephalopathy, a broad term used to describe brain damage or dysfunction, and long-term neurological complications in certain vulnerable populations.

The potential for respiratory viruses to harm the central nervous system is likely underestimated, Dr. Desforges said, noting he hopes efforts such as VINEx will bring more attention and funding to this area of research.

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In recent months, there has been an increasing number of reports of COVID-19 patients experiencing neurological problems, ranging from anosmia, or loss of smell, to stroke, seizures and encephalopathy.

There appears to be growing evidence that the new coronavirus may be able to get into the brain, Dr. Desforges said, though scientists do not yet know how. One hypothesis is that it travels along the olfactory route, spreading through neurons or epithelial cells from the nose to the brain, he said. Another route may be through the blood, infecting leukocytes (white blood cells), which in some circumstances can get into the brain.

Dr. Desforges said most people have strong defence mechanisms to prevent viruses and bacteria from entering the brain. Older individuals and those with suppressed immune systems may be most vulnerable.

At McGill, Dr. Evans said researchers still need to answer many basic questions, including whether the new coronavirus gets into the brain in the first place.

“We need a large-scale characterization of what COVID is doing. Does it get into the brain? If so, how?”

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