Brain MRI

Could a common treatment preserve brain function after COVID-19 infection?

An innovative study to assess whether a commonly used cholesterol lowering medication can prevent brain complications from COVID-19 has received over $2.3m from the Government’s Medical Research Future Fund.

The study, a collaboration between The George Institute for Global Health, the University of New South Wales, Monash University’s School of Public Health, University of Sydney, and Sydney Local Health District, is one of six that have been singled out for immediate support in the ongoing fight against the pandemic.

Chief Investigator Professor Craig Anderson from The George Institute said that COVID-19 can cause a range of complications to the brain.

“At the time of the acute infection, COVID-19 puts patients at high risk of strokes from intense inflammation in the body and being critically ill. However, the virus may disrupt neural pathways in more subtle ways from direct invasion of the brain” he said.

“We aim to test whether treatment with a statin, widely prescribed to prevent strokes and improve cardiovascular health, has anti-inflammatory effects that can maintain memory and thinking after COVID-19 infection.”

Neurological complications have emerged as a significant cause of ongoing ill health in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those affected complain of various symptoms such as “brain fog”, dizziness, headaches, insomnia and fatigue. They may also be at increased risk of long-term complications, such as stroke and memory impairment. 

Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed medications globally which help to control the body’s production of cholesterol, but they are also known to reduce the activity of certain cell proteins that are involved in the body’s response to infection and inflammation. Some studies also suggest they may reduce the risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.

The trial - codenamed STRONGER (Statin TReatment for COVID-19 to Optimise NeuroloGical recovERy) - aims to determine if a particular statin (atorvastatin) helps improve neurological recovery in 410 adults after who have had COVID-19 infection in the last year. The study will partner with colleagues in Santiago, Chile - supported by local funding - to recruit people with more recent infection.

“We know from other serious viral infections and the way that the brain’s vascular system can be impacted, that COVID complications could lead to neurological problems,” added Prof Anderson.

“If we can prevent this using a well-studied, widely available and low-cost treatment, the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on cognitive function could be avoided.”