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COVID-19 and Brain Disease

The latest COVID-19 research reveals surprising insights into how Long COVID affects brain health and promising treatment options for the future.

While the COVID-19 pandemic had an enormous impact on the entire world, certain populations were affected differently. People with brain disease faced additional challenges, including impediments to accessing care, the availability of medication, and additional risks for COVID-19-related complications.

Even people without brain disease found their brain health impacted by COVID-19 in the form of Long COVID. First coined in the spring of 2020, Long COVID refers to the long-term effects that continue or develop after some people have a COVID-19 infection. There are many symptoms, but some of the more common ones are fatigue, difficulty concentrating (brain fog), headaches, and changes in smell or taste. It’s now estimated that roughly 65 million people worldwide have been or continue to be affected by Long COVID. 

Though the World Health Organization declared an end to the pandemic in May 2023, COVID-19 continues to have a lasting effect. As more research emerges, we’re deepening our understanding of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, but there is still much to learn about the impact of the pandemic and Long COVID on brain health.

New Insights Into How COVID-19 Affects the Nervous System

Within the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors realized that the virus could cause neurologic symptoms ranging anywhere from brain fog and headaches to strokes and paralysis. While most people who contract COVID-19 do not develop serious neurologic symptoms, the risk is higher for populations that experience health disparities. 

Though we don’t know exactly how many people have been impacted, one study found that almost 13% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 developed serious neurologic symptoms. Thankfully, researchers are now getting closer to understanding how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus indirectly affects the brain. 

They believe that reduced blood flow and inflammation both play significant roles. COVID-19 could affect blood vessels and restrict blood flow to the brain, resulting in neurologic issues, including brain fog and strokes. Inflammation throughout the body also triggers brain inflammation, which can cause injury. This leads researchers to believe that the immune system’s response to the COVID-19 virus could damage the brain by causing it to become inflamed, resulting in neurologic symptoms like sensory changes, movement issues, and paralysis.

This emerging research paints a clearer picture of COVID-19’s impact on the brain, paving the way for potential treatments. It also reveals insights into the effects other viral infections could have on the brain.

The Latest Research Suggests Long COVID Could be a Brain Injury

Recent research may provide a new explanation for the persistent cognitive and mental health issues experienced by some people with Long COVID. Researchers believe COVID-19 could be causing viral-borne brain injuries that lead to ongoing symptoms. A recent study of people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 found evidence of brain injury a year after initial infection. 

Using biomarkers, brain scans, cognitive tests, and self-reported symptoms, researchers determined that long-term brain injury had occurred, resulting in cognitive deficits equal to 20 years of brain aging. Many participants also experienced anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.

These findings validate many people who experience these symptoms but struggle with clinician skepticism. Brain scans and biomarkers provide objective evidence of brain injury, allowing these individuals access to available treatments.

Researchers are concerned the brain aging associated with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus could have long-term repercussions, including an increased susceptibility to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Further research is vital to fully understand how the virus works and enable scientists to discover preventative measures and mitigate long-term consequences.

How COVID-19 Affects People Living With Dementia

COVID-19 appears to have a significant negative impact on those living with dementia. A recent small-scale study observed the cognitive effects of COVID-19 on individuals with several different types of dementia. Researchers found that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus rapidly increased brain deterioration in the study participants, regardless of the type of dementia they had.

The study followed 14 people with dementia who had contracted COVID-19. Researchers conducted brain imaging and cognitive assessments at the time of infection and one year after. The results showed a significant decline in cognitive function (including memory, attention, and speech) as well as increased depression and fatigue. All participants also experienced cerebral atrophy (lesions in the brain and the loss of neurons and connections between neurons).

Although it was small, this study still demonstrates that COVID-19 causes severe neurologic complications in people with all types of dementia. With more research, we can learn why this deterioration happens and develop treatments to slow its progression.

Emerging COVID-19 Research Provides Hope for the Future

Emerging research shows that there may be a way to mitigate the brain aging caused by COVID-19. Researchers found that COVID-19 accelerates the presence of senescent cells, a type of brain cell that naturally accumulates as people age. These cells cause inflammation and degeneration, which leads to cognitive issues. Using synthetic brain models created from human cells, researchers screened various therapeutic options. They discovered four drugs that could target and remove the senescent cells caused by COVID-19. Researchers expect this study will lead to widespread use of these drugs to treat ongoing neurologic symptoms experienced by people with Long COVID and other viral infections.

While we’ve made great strides in understanding COVID-19 and the effects of Long COVID over the past four years, there is still so much work to be done. Every study deepens our understanding and has the potential to provide better care for people affected by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Further research also has the potential to unlock insights into neurologic issues caused by different viruses. As we know, research progress in one area of brain disease will lead to treatments and cures for many other brain diseases, disorders, and injuries.

The American Brain Foundation delivered vital information to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic and remains committed to sharing the latest research advances. Join us in our mission to support cutting-edge research in the fight against brain disease—donate today to make a difference.