Critter Corner: Does COVID-19 Have Any Connection to Parkinson’s Disease?

Dear Hayek,

My uncle, Ronnie, died of complications from Parkinson’s Disease last year. He suffered for a long time with deteriorating mobility, speech issues, and inability to swallow. Eventually, he was diagnosed with dementia and succumbed to his illnesses. It was sad watching him, and now I am concerned about something I heard–that coronavirus may cause a wave of neurological conditions including Parkinson’s disease. What do you know about this?

Thanks for your help!

Nora Logicull

Dear Nora,

Many of us who have studied COVID-19 or know someone who had it know that it can cause worrying neurological symptoms, such as a loss of smell and taste. Australian scientists are warning the damage the virus causes to the brain may also lead to more serious conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.

Five years after the Spanish flu pandemic in the 1910s, there was up to a three-fold increase in the incidences of Parkinson’s disease. Professor Kevin Barnham from the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health said he believes a similar “silent wave” of neurological illness could follow this pandemic. According to Barnham, “Parkinson’s disease is a complex illness, but one of the causes is inflammation, and the virus helps to drive that inflammation. Once the inflammation gets into the brain, it starts a cascade of events which can ultimately lead to Parkinson’s disease.”

Researchers outlined their concerns in a study published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease.

How the COVID-19 Virus May be Linked to Parkinson’s Disease

Medical experts said it was too early to know how many people who had COVID-19 would go on to develop Parkinson’s Disease, but Professor Barnham believes that the risk is real.

Doctors are still realizing the potential effects of COVID-19. But, don’t despair. Researchers have confirmed that not everyone who had COVID-19 will develop Parkinson’s disease or other long-term effects. Researchers still need a better understanding of just how people with COVID-19 are likely to develop the disease in the future before they make a determination about the extent of people who will be affected.

Smell-test Screening Being Used to Pick Up Early Signs of Parkinson’s Disease

In people with Parkinson’s disease, problems such as a loss of smell can show up 10 years before they have any physical symptoms. Researchers from the Florey Institute are working on a smell-test screening tool that could be rolled out to signal early indications of Parkinson’s disease.

According to Leah Beauchamp, co-author of the study described above, “(w)e weren’t prepared the last time — more than 100 years ago. We have the tools and we can get ahead of this now.”

Hopefully, history won’t repeat itself!

Hayek

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