Researchers discover a link between Long COVID and serotonin

Long COVID is a condition that lingers on even after you've technically beaten the virus.

Researchers discover a link between Long COVID and serotonin
A woman receives a booster dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Bangkok, Thailand, January 5, 2023. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/File Photo

The backstory: In the wake of the COVID pandemic, the world not only grappled with the immediate health crisis but also with the lingering aftermath experienced by those who have recovered from the virus. 

Long COVID is a condition that lingers on even after you've technically beaten the virus. It can haunt you for weeks or even months after your initial bout with COVID. You might find yourself constantly fatigued, struggling to concentrate or even battling with breathing issues. What's perplexing is that it doesn't matter if your initial COVID case was mild or severe – Long COVID doesn't discriminate.

More recently: The exact causes behind Long COVID have remained somewhat of a mystery. But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have been digging into it. Earlier this week, they published their findings in the journal Cell.   

The development: Researchers uncovered a connection between Long COVID and certain remnants of the virus lurking in the digestive tracts of patients. These remnants, basically leftover viral bits, trigger chronic inflammation and mess with a patient’s serotonin, which is a key brain chemical that affects thinking and memory.

This finding suggests that serotonin plays a big role in Long COVID, impacting not just emotions but cognitive functions, mood swings and even gut problems. The disruption in serotonin might be the piece of the puzzle that explains the memory and concentration issues Long COVID patients face. This discovery hints at a possible common thread connecting various Long COVID symptoms, offering a clearer picture of this mysterious condition. What's more, it opens doors to potential treatments. Medications like Prozac, known for their impact on boosting serotonin levels, could potentially help ease some Long COVID symptoms.

Key comments: 

“The fact that we see serotonin being dysregulated in some individuals with long Covid can potentially explain why there’s such a broad spectrum of symptoms,” spanning brain fog and mood to problems sleeping and gastric upset, said co-author Christoph Thaiss, an assistant professor of microbiology at the Penn Institute for Immunology in Philadelphia.

“This is as close as I have seen to a unifying framework for long Covid,” said Ziyad Al-Aly, director of the clinical epidemiology center at the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System in Missouri, “This is a very important advance in the field.”

“But still, it’s a very important mechanism that deserves a lot of attention,” said Akiko Iwasaki, a professor of immunobiology at the Yale School of Medicine. “If serotonin is really the key marker, we definitely should be including that.”

“It may be a combination of therapies that ends up being the most effective for patients and not one drug in isolation,” said study co-author Benjamin Abramoff, director of Penn Medicine’s Post-COVID Assessment and Recovery Clinic