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COVID-19 is an acute illness caused by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Although most people recover from COVID-19 within a few weeks of presenting with symptoms, some experience long-term complications that affect multiple organs, including the heart, lung, kidney, skin, and brain. Findings from a recent study suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infection may promote neurodegenerative disease.

Neurodegenerative diseases are chronic disorders of the central nervous system that are characterized by chronic progressive loss of neuronal structure and function. They often emerge in mid-to-late adult life and are increasingly common, affecting roughly 37 million people worldwide – a number expected to increase as human lifespan increases. Although scientists don’t fully understand the underlying causes of most neurodegenerative diseases, protein aggregation in the brain is a widely accepted contributing factor. Previous research has shown that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein binds to heparin (a protein involved in blood clotting) and heparin binding proteins, accelerating the aggregation of proteins involved in neurodegeneration.

Since many of the biological functions of a protein depend upon its affinity to bind with other proteins, the authors of the study used a web-based algorithm called HDOCK to gauge the binding affinity between the receptor binding domain of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein between heparin and several aggregation-prone heparin-binding proteins implicated in neurodegenerative diseases, including amyloid-beta, alpha-synuclein, tau, and TAR DNA binding protein.

They found that SARS-CoV-2 spike protein exhibited differing binding affinities for the various proteins. Heparin showed the highest affinity, with the others exhibiting affinity in decreasing order: prion, amyloid-beta, tau, TAR DNA binding protein, and alpha-synuclein.

These findings suggest that the heparin-binding site on the spike protein facilitates the subsequent binding to amyloid proteins, potentially leading to neurodegeneration in the brain. Learn more about risk factors that drive Alzheimer’s disease, a type of neurodegenerative disease, in this episode featuring Dr. Dale Bredesen.

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