Longitudinal positron emission tomography and postmortem analysis reveals widespread neuroinflammation in SARS-CoV-2 infected rhesus macaques

Juliana M Nieuwland, Erik Nutma, Ingrid H C H M Philippens, Kinga P Böszörményi, Edmond J Remarque, Jaco Bakker, Lisette Meijer, Noor Woerdman, Zahra C Fagrouch, Babs E Verstrepen, Jan A M Langermans, Ernst J Verschoor, Albert D Windhorst, Ronald E Bontrop, Helga E de Vries, Marieke A Stammes, Jinte Middeldorp*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BACKGROUND: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) patients initially develop respiratory symptoms, but they may also suffer from neurological symptoms. People with long-lasting effects after acute infections with severe respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), i.e., post-COVID syndrome or long COVID, may experience a variety of neurological manifestations. Although we do not fully understand how SARS-CoV-2 affects the brain, neuroinflammation likely plays a role.

METHODS: To investigate neuroinflammatory processes longitudinally after SARS-CoV-2 infection, four experimentally SARS-CoV-2 infected rhesus macaques were monitored for 7 weeks with 18-kDa translocator protein (TSPO) positron emission tomography (PET) using [18F]DPA714, together with computed tomography (CT). The baseline scan was compared to weekly PET-CTs obtained post-infection (pi). Brain tissue was collected following euthanasia (50 days pi) to correlate the PET signal with TSPO expression, and glial and endothelial cell markers. Expression of these markers was compared to brain tissue from uninfected animals of comparable age, allowing the examination of the contribution of these cells to the neuroinflammatory response following SARS-CoV-2 infection.

RESULTS: TSPO PET revealed an increased tracer uptake throughout the brain of all infected animals already from the first scan obtained post-infection (day 2), which increased to approximately twofold until day 30 pi. Postmortem immunohistochemical analysis of the hippocampus and pons showed TSPO expression in cells expressing ionized calcium-binding adaptor molecule 1 (IBA1), glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), and collagen IV. In the hippocampus of SARS-CoV-2 infected animals the TSPO+ area and number of TSPO+ cells were significantly increased compared to control animals. This increase was not cell type specific, since both the number of IBA1+TSPO+ and GFAP+TSPO+ cells was increased, as well as the TSPO+ area within collagen IV+ blood vessels.

CONCLUSIONS: This study manifests [18F]DPA714 as a powerful radiotracer to visualize SARS-CoV-2 induced neuroinflammation. The increased uptake of [18F]DPA714 over time implies an active neuroinflammatory response following SARS-CoV-2 infection. This inflammatory signal coincides with an increased number of TSPO expressing cells, including glial and endothelial cells, suggesting neuroinflammation and vascular dysregulation. These results demonstrate the long-term neuroinflammatory response following a mild SARS-CoV-2 infection, which potentially precedes long-lasting neurological symptoms.

Original languageEnglish
Article number179
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Neuroinflammation
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 29 Jul 2023


  • Animals
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Neuroinflammatory Diseases
  • COVID-19/diagnostic imaging
  • Endothelial Cells
  • Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome
  • Positron-Emission Tomography
  • Inflammation/diagnostic imaging
  • Collagen Type IV
  • Receptors, GABA


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