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An innovative study to assess whether a commonly used cholesterol lowering medication can prevent brain complications from COVID-19 has received more than $2.3 million from the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).

The study is a collaboration between The George Institute for Global Health, UNSW Sydney, Monash University’s School of Public Health, University of Sydney and Sydney Local Health District. It is one of six clinical trials to begin in 2021 that have received grants totalling $10 million through the MRFF Clinical Trials Activity Initiative.

“Each of these extremely promising Australian innovations has the potential to dramatically shift the global battle against COVID-19,” said Greg Hunt, the Minister for Health and Aged Care in a media release.

The study’s Chief Investigator, The George Institute’s Craig Anderson who is Professor of Neurology and Epidemiology at UNSW Medicine & Health, said that COVID-19 can cause a range of complications to the brain.

“At the time of the acute infection, COVID-19 puts patients at high risk of strokes from intense inflammation in the body and being critically ill. However, the virus may disrupt neural pathways in more subtle ways from direct invasion of the brain,” he said.

“We aim to test whether treatment with a statin, widely prescribed to prevent strokes and improve cardiovascular health, has anti-inflammatory effects that can maintain memory and thinking after COVID-19 infection.”

Craig Anderson

Professor Craig Anderson.

Neurological complications have emerged as a significant cause of ongoing ill health in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of those affected complain of various symptoms such as “brain fog”, dizziness, headaches, insomnia and fatigue. They may also be at increased risk of long-term complications, such as stroke and memory impairment. 

Statins are one of the most commonly prescribed medications globally which help to control the body’s production of cholesterol, but they are also known to reduce the activity of certain cell proteins involved in the body’s response to infection and inflammation. Some studies also suggest they may reduce the risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.

The trial – codenamed STRONGER (Statin TReatment for COVID-19 to Optimise NeuroloGical recovERy) – aims to determine if a particular statin (atorvastatin) helps improve neurological recovery in 410 adults who have had COVID-19 infection in the last year. The study will partner with colleagues in Santiago, Chile – supported by local funding – to recruit people with more recent infection.

“We know from other serious viral infections and the way the brain’s vascular system can be impacted, that COVID-19 complications could lead to neurological problems,” said Professor Anderson.

“If we can prevent this using a well-studied, widely available and low-cost treatment, the long-term consequences of COVID-19 on cognitive function could be avoided.”