How COVID-19 changes the heart—even after the virus is gone
While COVID-19’s effects on the lungs and respiratory system are well known, there is growing research suggesting that the virus is also affecting the heart, with potentially lasting effects.
In a presentation at the annual meeting of the Biophysical Society, an international biophysics scientific group, Dr. Andrew Marks, chair of the department of physiology at Columbia University, and his colleagues reported on changes in the heart tissue of COVID-19 patients who had died from the disease, some of whom also had a history of heart conditions.
The team conducted autopsy analyses and found a range of abnormalities, particularly in the way heart cells regulate calcium.
All muscles, including those in the heart, rely on calcium to contract. Muscle cells store calcium and open special channels inside of cells to release it when needed. In some conditions such as heart failure, the channel remains open in a desperate attempt to help the heart muscle contract more actively. The leaking of calcium ultimately depletes the calcium stores, weakening the muscle in the end.
“We found evidence, in the hearts of COVID-19 patients, abnormalities in the way calcium is handled,” says Marks. In fact, when it came to their calcium systems, the heart tissue of these 10 people who had died of COVID-19 looked very similar to that of people with heart failure.
Marks plans to further explore the heart changes that SARS-CoV-2 might cause by studying how the infection affects the hearts of mice and hamsters. He intends to measure changes in immune cells as well as any alterations in heart function in the animals both while they are infected and after they have recovered in order to document any lingering effects.
“The data we present show that there are dramatic changes in the heart,” Marks says. “The precise cause and long term consequences of those need to be studied more.”