Authors: Franke C, Ferse C, Kreye J, Rocco A, Hosp J

PMID: 33359380 PMCID: PMC7834471 DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2020.12.022


Background: COVID-19 intensive care patients can present with neurological syndromes, usually in the absence of SARS-CoV-2 in cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The recent finding of some virus-neutralizing antibodies cross-reacting with brain tissue suggests the possible involvement of specific autoimmunity.

Design: Blood and CSF samples from eleven critically ill COVID-19 patients presenting with unexplained neurological symptoms including myoclonus, oculomotor disturbance, delirium, dystonia and epileptic seizures, were analyzed for anti-neuronal and anti-glial autoantibodies.

Results: Using cell-based assays and indirect immunofluorescence on unfixed murine brain sections, all patients showed anti-neuronal autoantibodies in serum or CSF. Antigens included intracellular and neuronal surface proteins, such as Yo or NMDA receptor, but also various specific undetermined epitopes, reminiscent of the brain tissue binding observed with certain human monoclonal SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. These included vessel endothelium, astrocytic proteins and neuropil of basal ganglia, hippocampus or olfactory bulb.

Conclusion: The high frequency of autoantibodies targeting the brain in the absence of other explanations suggests a causal relationship to clinical symptoms, in particular to hyperexcitability (myoclonus, seizures). Several underlying autoantigens and their potential molecular mimicry with SARS-CoV-2 still await identification. However, autoantibodies may already now explain some aspects of multi-organ disease in COVID-19 and can guide immunotherapy in selected cases.

Keywords: Autoantibody; Autoimmunity; COVID-19; CSF; Encephalitis; Neurology; Viral-triggered.