Quantitative susceptibility mapping at 7 Tesla in COVID-19: mechanistic and outcome associations


Post mortem studies have shown that patients dying from severe SARS-CoV-2 infection frequently have pathological changes in their central nervous system, particularly in the brainstem. Many of these changes are proposed to result from para-infectious and/or post-infection immune responses. Clinical symptoms such as fatigue, breathlessness, and chest pain are frequently reported in post-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. We propose that these symptoms are in part due to damage to key neuromodulatory brainstem nuclei. While brainstem involvement has been demonstrated in the acute phase of the illness, the evidence of long-term brainstem change on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is inconclusive. We therefore used ultra-high field (7T) quantitative susceptibility mapping (QSM) to test the hypothesis that brainstem abnormalities persist in post-COVID patients and that these are associated with persistence of key symptoms. We used 7T QSM data from 30 patients, scanned 93 – 548 days after hospital admission for COVID-19 and compared them to 51 age-matched controls without prior history of COVID-19 infection. We correlated the patients’ QSM signals with disease severity (duration of hospital admission and COVID-19 severity scale), inflammatory response during the acute illness (C-reactive protein, D-Dimer and platelet levels), functional recovery (modified Rankin scale; mRS), depression (PHQ-9) and anxiety (GAD-7). In COVID-19 survivors the MR susceptibility increased in the medulla, pons and midbrain regions of the brainstem. Specifically, there was increased susceptibility in the inferior medullary reticular formation and the raphe pallidus and obscurus. In these regions, patients with higher tissue susceptibility had worse acute disease severity, higher acute inflammatory markers, and significantly worse functional recovery. Using non-invasive ultra-high field 7T MRI, we show evidence of brainstem pathophysiological changes associated with inflammatory processes in post-hospitalized COVID-19 survivors. This study contributes to understanding the mechanisms of long-term effects of COVID-19 and recovery.