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Why do some patients with coronavirus lose their sense of smell? Harvard researchers have the answer



Temporary odor loss, or anosmia, is a common symptom of COVID-19, and a recent study identified cell types in the upper nasal cavity that are most vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

A research team led by neurologists at Harvard Medical School (HMS) found that neuronal cell types can cause odor loss in patients with coronavirus. Their findings were recently published in Science Advances.

“Our findings suggest that the new coronavirus alters patients’ sense of smell by not directly infecting neurons, but by affecting the function of supporting cells,” said Sandip Robert Dutta, senior author and associate professor of neurobiology at the Blavatnik Institute at HMS, in a university news release. .

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The researchers claim that olfactory support cells, not neurons, are vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.  (iStock)

The researchers claim that olfactory support cells, not neurons, are vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection. (iStock)

This conclusion means that the infection is unlikely to cause long-term damage and permanent loss of odor.

“I think that’s good news, because once the infection clears, olfactory neurons don’t need to be replaced or rebuilt from scratch,” Dutta said. “But to confirm this conclusion, we need more data and a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms.”

A separate, unrelated study found that almost 90 percent of this subgroup of coronavirus patients had an improvement in odor within four weeks. The researchers evaluated 202 mildly symptomatic adults at the Treviso Regional Hospital in Italy. Four weeks later, 89 percent of patients who reported a sudden onset of altered sense of smell or taste saw complete elimination or improvement in symptoms.

According to researchers at Harvard University, other viral infections (including coronaviruses) are known to differ from odor in months. These infections are known to cause direct damage to olfactory sensory neurons. In these viruses, inflammatory reactions can cause changes in odor perception, although some cases of COVID-19-related anosmia have occurred without nasal inflammation.

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