Anosmia is the temporary loss of smell that can be caused by a blockage in the nose, head injuries, infections, or diseases. It is well known months into the pandemic that loss of smell is one of the primary neurological symptoms of COVID-19, acting as the main indicator of the disease. News Landed has reported multiple times in March, April, and May that loss of taste and smell is a primary coronavirus symptom. However, the reason for the occurrence of this symptom has been unknown until now.
A new study led by Harvard Medical School has found that olfactory cells (smell nerve cells) are susceptible to being infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, MedicalXpress reports. The study was published by the international team of researchers in the journal Science Advances.
The team found that the gene that encodes the ACE2 receptor protein, which the novel coronavirus uses to enter human cells, are not found on olfactory sensory neurons. However, those genes are found in other cells that support the olfactory sensory neurons, either structurally or metabolically. The research indicated that these supporting cells may be responsible for causing anosmia.
Senior study author Sandeep Robert Datta, an associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, says, “Our findings indicate that the novel coronavirus changes the sense of smell in patients not by directly infecting neurons but by affecting the function of supporting cells.”
He, later on, indicates that this could be great news, as the research’s conclusion implies that there probably isn’t’ permanent to the olfactory sensory neurons in the body. Persistent loss of smell is a symptom usually found with people suffering from depression and other social health issues.
“I think it’s good news, because once the infection clears, olfactory neurons don’t appear to need to be replaced or rebuilt from scratch,” Datta said. “But we need more data and a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms to confirm this conclusion.”
The revelations from this study could be used to accelerate treatment for anosmia in patients suffering from COVID-19. It could also help scientists better understand how loss of smell in COVID-19 differs from other viral infections, as the symptoms of anosmia tend to disappear in just a few weeks in COVID-19, much less compared to other viral infections.
“Anosmia seems like a curious phenomenon, but it can be devastating for the small fraction of people in whom it’s persistent,” Datta said. “It can have serious psychological consequences and could be a major public health problem if we have a growing population with permanent loss of smell. We initiated this work because my lab had a couple of datasets ready to analyze when the pandemic hit, and we published an initial preprint. What happened after that was amazing, researchers across the globe offered to share and merge their data with us in a kind of impromptu global consortium. This was a real collaborative achievement.”
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