UNM researchers use zebrafish to understand why COVID-19 causes loss of smell

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Losing your taste and smell has been one of the most memorable symptoms related to COVID-19. If you lost those senses even just for a couple of days, you may wonder why that happened.

UNM researchers are trying to answer that too. They’re using zebrafish as a model to see how they interact with the spike protein found in the COVID-19 virus and vaccinations.

The goal is to figure out how the virus and immune cells interact in the nose and then eventually how the loss of those senses impacts the brain.

Irene Salinas is an associate professor of Biology at UNM. She said this work started shortly after the pandemic did in 2020.

“As soon as the pandemic hit and we saw that that was one of the first symptoms,” said Salinas.

Salinas said they put the spike protein found in both the virus and vaccines in the nose of the fish and track what happens, how the immune system responds, and the damage it causes.

“We’re excited about how our work can contribute to maybe understanding why some people lose their smell just when they get the vaccine, for instance,” she said.

But that’s really just the beginning. Their goal is to go another step further and understand how that response impacts our brain.

“We want to understand how losing the sense of smell for instance has an impact on your brain. I think that’s very important question. People are like ‘oh, I just lost the smell and it’s coming back.’ Everyone seems like ‘oh, I can live with it.’ But some people don’t recover,” she said. “We think that, of course, this is going to impact also neurons in your brain, because neurons in your brain need that input from your nose all the time.”

Salinas said she’s not sure what’s next. Right now, they’re working to apply for more grants to get more money to continue this important research.