Hyperbaric oxygen therapy could treat Long COVID, new study shows
Long COVID is not a single disease, it is a syndrome or cluster of symptoms that can arise from exposure to SARS-CoV-2, a virus that affects an unusually large number of different tissue types. That's because the ACE2 receptor it uses to enter cells is common throughout the body, and inflammation from the immune response fighting that infection can damage surrounding tissue.
One of the most widely shared groups of symptoms is fatigue and what has come to be called “brain fog,” a difficulty focusing and an amorphous feeling of slowed mental functioning and capacity. Researchers have tied these COVID-related symptoms to tissue damage in specific sections of the brain and actual shrinkage in its size.When Shai Efrati, medical director of the Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Research in Tel Aviv, first looked at functional magnetic resonance images (fMRIs) of patients with what is now called long COVID, he saw “micro infarcts along the brain.” It reminded him of similar lesions in other conditions he had treated with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). “Once we saw that, we said, this is the type of wound we can treat. It doesn't matter if the primary cause is mechanical injury like TBI [traumatic brain injury] or stroke … we know how to oxidize them.”
Efrati came to HBOT almost by accident. The physician had seen how it had helped heal diabetic ulcers and improved the lives of other patients, but he was busy with his own research. Then the director of his Tel Aviv hospital threatened to shut down the small HBOT chamber unless Efrati took on administrative responsibility for it. He reluctantly agreed, a decision that shifted the entire focus of his research.
“The main difference between wounds in the leg and wounds in the brain is that one is something we can see, it's tangible, and the wound in the brain is hidden,” says Efrati. With fMRIs, he can measure how a limited supply of oxygen in blood is shuttled around to fuel activity in various parts of the brain. Years of research have mapped how specific areas of the brain control activity ranging from thinking to moving. An fMRI captures the brain area as it’s activated by supplies of oxygen; lack of activity after the same stimuli suggests damage has occurred in that tissue. Suddenly, what was hidden became visible to researchers using fMRI. It helped to make a diagnosis and measure response to treatment.
HBOT is not a single thing but rather a tool, a process or approach with variations depending on the condition being treated. It aims to increase the amount of oxygen that gets to damaged tissue and speed up healing. Regular air is about 21 percent oxygen. But inside the HBOT chamber the atmospheric pressure can be increased to up to three times normal pressure at sea level and the patient breathes pure oxygen through a mask; blood becomes saturated with much higher levels of oxygen. This can defuse through the damaged capillaries of a wound and promote healing.
Efrati’s clinical trials started in December 2020, barely a year after SARS-CoV-2 had first appeared in Israel. Patients who’d experienced cognitive issues after having COVID received 40 sessions in the chamber over a period of 60 days. In each session, they spent 90 minutes breathing through a mask at two atmospheres of pressure. While inside, they performed mental exercises to train the brain. The only difference between the two groups of patients was that one breathed pure oxygen while the other group breathed normal air. No one knew who was receiving which level of oxygen.
The results were striking. Before and after fMRIs showed significant repair of damaged tissue in the brain and functional cognition tests improved substantially among those who received pure oxygen. Importantly, 80 percent of patients said they felt back to “normal,” but Efrati says they didn't include patient evaluation in the paper because there was no baseline data to show how they functioned before COVID. After the study was completed, the placebo group was offered a new round of treatments using 100 percent oxygen, and the team saw similar results.
Scans show improved blood flow in a patient suffering from Long Covid.
Sagol Center for Hyperbaric Medicine
Efrati's use of HBOT is part of an emerging geroscience approach to diseases associated with aging. These researchers see systems dysfunctions that are common to several diseases, such as inflammation, which has been shown to play a role in micro infarcts, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. Preliminary research suggests that HBOT can retard some underlying mechanisms of aging, which might address several medical conditions. However, the drug approval process is set up to regulate individual disease, not conditions as broad as aging, and so they concentrate on treating the low hanging fruit: disorders where effective treatments currently are limited and success might be demonstrated.
The key to HBOT's effectiveness is something called the hyperoxic-hypoxic paradox where a body does not react to an increase in available oxygen, only to a decrease, regardless of the starting point. That danger signal has a powerful effect on gene expression, resulting in changes in metabolism, and the proliferation of stem cells. That occurs with each cycle of 20 minutes of pure oxygen followed by 5 minutes of regular air circulating through the masks, while the chamber remains pressurized. The high levels of oxygen in the blood provide the fuel necessary for tissue regeneration.
The hyperbaric chamber that Efrati has built can hold a dozen patients and attending medical staff. Think of it as a pressurized airplane cabin, only with much more space than even in first class. In the U.S., people think of HBOT as “a sack of air or some tube that you can buy on Amazon” or find at a health spa. “That is total bullshit,” Efrati says. “It has to be a medical class center where a physician can lose their license if they are not operating it properly.”
Alexander Charney, a research psychiatrist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, calls Efrati’s study thoughtful and well designed. But it demands a lot from patients with its intense number of sessions. Those types of regimens have proven difficult to roll out to large numbers of patients. Still, the results are intriguing enough to merit additional trials.
John J. Miller, a physician and editor in chief of Psychiatric Times, has seen “many physicians that use hyperbaric oxygen for various brain disorders such as TBI.” He is intrigued by Efrati's work and believes the approach “has great potential to help patients with long COVID whose symptoms are related to brain tissue changes.”
Efrati believes so much in the power of the hyperoxic-hypoxic paradox to heal a variety of tissue injuries that he is leading the medical advisory board at Aviv Clinic, an international network of clinics that are delivering HBOT treatments based on research conducted in Israel. His goal is to silence doubters by quickly opening about 50 such clinics worldwide, based on the model of standalone dialysis clinics in the United States. Sagol Center is treating 300 patients per day, and clinics have opened in Florida and Dubai. There are plans to open another in Manhattan.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Kids stressing you out? They could be protecting your health.
- A new device unlocks the heart's secrets
- Super-ager gene transplants
- Surgeons could 3D print your organs before operations
- A skull cap looks into the brain like an fMRI
This article originally appeared in One Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are making us more vulnerable to infectious diseases by land and by sea - and how scientists are working on solutions.
On a warm summer day, forests, meadows, and riverbanks should be abuzz with insects—from butterflies to beetles and bees. But bugs aren’t as abundant as they used to be, and that’s not a plus for people and the planet, scientists say. The declining numbers of insects, coupled with climate change, can have devastating effects for people in more ways than one. “Insects have been around for a very long time and can live well without humans, but humans cannot live without insects and the many services they provide to us,” says Philipp Lehmann, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Stockholm University in Sweden. Their decline is not just bad, Lehmann adds. “It’s devastating news for humans.
”Insects and other invertebrates are the most diverse organisms on the planet. They fill most niches in terrestrial and aquatic environments and drive ecosystem functions. Many insects are also economically vital because they pollinate crops that humans depend on for food, including cereals, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. A paper published in PNAS notes that insects alone are worth more than $70 billion a year to the U.S. economy. In places where pollinators like honeybees are in decline, farmers now buy them from rearing facilities at steep prices rather than relying on “Mother Nature.”
And because many insects serve as food for other species—bats, birds and freshwater fish—they’re an integral part of the ecosystem’s food chain. “If you like to eat good food, you should thank an insect,” says Scott Hoffman Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “And if you like birds in your trees and fish in your streams, you should be concerned with insect conservation.”
Deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural spread have eaten away at large swaths of insect habitat. The increasingly poorly controlled use of insecticides, which harms unintended species, and the proliferation of invasive insect species that disrupt native ecosystems compound the problem.
“There is not a single reason why insects are in decline,” says Jessica L. Ware, associate curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and president of the Entomological Society of America. “There are over one million described insect species, occupying different niches and responding to environmental stressors in different ways.”
Jessica Ware, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, is using DNA methods to monitor insects.
In addition to habitat loss fueling the decline in insect populations, the other “major drivers” Ware identified are invasive species, climate change, pollution, and fluctuating levels of nitrogen, which play a major role in the lifecycle of plants, some of which serve as insect habitants and others as their food. “The causes of world insect population declines are, unfortunately, very easy to link to human activities,” Lehmann says.
Climate change will undoubtedly make the problem worse. “As temperatures start to rise, it can essentially make it too hot for some insects to survive,” says Emily McDermott, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at the University of Arkansas. “Conversely in other areas, it could potentially also allow other insects to expand their ranges.”
Without Pollinators Humans Will Starve
We may not think much of our planet’s getting warmer by only one degree Celsius, but it can spell catastrophe for many insects, plants, and animals, because it’s often accompanied by less rainfall. “Changes in precipitation patterns will have cascading consequences across the tree of life,” says David Wagner, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Insects, in particular, are “very vulnerable” because “they’re small and susceptible to drying.”
For instance, droughts have put the monarch butterfly at risk of being unable to find nectar to “recharge its engine” as it migrates from Canada and New England to Mexico for winter, where it enters a hibernation state until it journeys back in the spring. “The monarch is an iconic and a much-loved insect,” whose migration “is imperiled by climate change,” Wagner says.
Warming and drying trends in the Western United States are perhaps having an even more severe impact on insects than in the eastern region. As a result, “we are seeing fewer individual butterflies per year,” says Matt Forister, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Nevada, Reno.
There are hundreds of butterfly species in the United States and thousands in the world. They are pollinators and can serve as good indicators of other species’ health. “Although butterflies are only one group among many important pollinators, in general we assume that what’s bad for butterflies is probably bad for other insects,” says Forister, whose research focuses on butterflies. Climate change and habitat destruction are wreaking havoc on butterflies as well as plants, leading to a further indirect effect on caterpillars and butterflies.
Different insect species have different levels of sensitivity to environmental changes. For example, one-half of the bumblebee species in the United States are showing declines, whereas the other half are not, says Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at the Pennsylvania State University. Some species of bumble bees are even increasing in their range, seemingly resilient to environmental changes. But other pollinators are dwindling to the point that farmers have to buy from the rearing facilities, which is the case for the California almond industry. “This is a massive cost to the farmer, which could be provided for free, in case the local habitats supported these pollinators,” Lehmann says.
For bees and other insects, climate change can harm the plants they depend on for survival or have a negative impact on the insects directly. Overly rainy and hot conditions may limit flowering in plants or reduce the ability of a pollinator to forage and feed, which then decreases their reproductive success, resulting in dwindling populations, Grozinger explains.
“Nutritional deprivation can also make pollinators more sensitive to viruses and parasites and therefore cause disease spread,” she says. “There are many ways that climate change can reduce our pollinator populations and make it more difficult to grow the many fruit, vegetable and nut crops that depend on pollinators.”
Disease-Causing Insects Can Bring More Outbreaks
While some much-needed insects are declining, certain disease-causing species may be spreading and proliferating, which is another reason for human concern. Many mosquito types spread malaria, Zika virus, West Nile virus, and a brain infection called equine encephalitis, along with other diseases as well as heartworms in dogs, says Michael Sabourin, president of the Vermont Entomological Society. An animal health specialist for the state, Sabourin conducts vector surveys that identify ticks and mosquitoes.
Scientists refer to disease-carrying insects as vector species and, while there’s a limited number of them, many of these infections can be deadly. Fleas were a well-known vector for the bubonic plague, while kissing bugs are a vector for Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening parasitic illness in humans, dogs, and other mammals, Sabourin says.
As the planet heats up, some of the creepy crawlers are able to survive milder winters or move up north. Warmer temperatures and a shorter snow season have spawned an increasing abundance of ticks in Maine, including the blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), known to transmit Lyme disease, says Sean Birkel, an assistant professor in the Climate Change Institute and Cooperative Extension at the University of Maine.
Coupled with more frequent and heavier precipitation, rising temperatures bring a longer warm season that can also lead to a longer period of mosquito activity. “While other factors may be at play, climate change affects important underlying conditions that can, in turn, facilitate the spread of vector-borne disease,” Birkel says.
For example, if mosquitoes are finding fewer of their preferred food sources, they may bite humans more. Both male and female mosquitoes feed on sugar as part of their normal behavior, but if they aren’t eating their fill, they may become more bloodthirsty. One recent paper found that sugar-deprived Anopheles gambiae females go for larger blood meals to stay in good health and lay eggs. “More blood meals equals more chances to pick up and transmit a pathogen,” McDermott says, He adds that climate change could reduce the number of available plants to feed on. And while most mosquitoes are “generalist sugar-feeders” meaning that they will likely find alternatives, losing their favorite plants can make them hungrier for blood
Similar to the effect of losing plants, mosquitoes may get turned onto people if they lose their favorite animal species. For example, some studies found that Culex pipiens mosquitoes that transmit the West Nile virus feed primarily on birds in summer. But that changes in the fall, at least in some places. Because there are fewer birds around, C. pipiens switch to mammals, including humans. And if some disease-carrying insect species proliferate or increase their ranges, that increases chances for human infection, says McDermott. “A larger concern is that climate change could increase vector population sizes, making it more likely that people or animals would be bitten by an infected insect.”
Science Can Help Bring Back the Buzz
To help friendly insects thrive and keep the foes in check, scientists need better ways of trapping, counting, and monitoring insects. It’s not an easy job, but artificial intelligence and molecular methods can help. Ware’s lab uses various environmental DNA methods to monitor freshwater habitats. Molecular technologies hold much promise. The so-called DNA barcodes, in which species are identified using a short string of their genes, can now be used to identify birds, bees, moths and other creatures, and should be used on a larger scale, says Wagner, the University of Connecticut professor. “One day, something akin to Star Trek’s tricorder will soon be on sale down at the local science store.”
Scientists are also deploying artificial intelligence, or AI, to identify insects in agricultural systems and north latitudes where there are fewer bugs, Wagner says. For instance, some automated traps already use the wingbeat frequencies of mosquitoes to distinguish the harmless ones from the disease-carriers. But new technology and software are needed to further expand detection based on vision, sound, and odors.
“Because of their ubiquity, enormity of numbers, and seemingly boundless diversity, we desperately need to develop molecular and AI technologies that will allow us to automate sampling and identification,” says Wagner. “That would accelerate our ability to track insect populations, alert us to the presence of new disease vectors, exotic pest introductions, and unexpected declines.”