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COVID-19 and Neurological Health: What We’ve Learned

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For many who have recovered from coronavirus infection, life has returned (somewhat) to normal. But for many others, the physical and mental effects of the illness are still being felt months later.

Fatigue, post-exercise discomfort and cognitive dysfunction — also known as brain fog — are some of the most common symptoms reported by COVID-19 patients months after their initial diagnosis.

The mental toll of infection can be both frustrating and worrisome to those living with unusual symptoms. To better understand brain fog and the ways COVID-19 impacts neurological health, we explain here what our medical neuroscience experts know so far.

How Does COVID-19 Impact Neurological Health?

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge in suicide deaths and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. It’s difficult to say if these effects are due to fear of the disease, social isolation, unemployment, economic burden, worsening of existing conditions or biological changes in the brain.

There has also been a concern about the psychological toll of COVID-19 infection. Other neurological symptoms seen in people with COVID-19 include loss of smell, inability to taste, muscle weakness, tingling or numbness in the hands and feet, dizziness, confusion, trouble with concentration, delirium, seizures and stroke.

What is “COVID Brain?”

Reported lingering mental effects of infection have led to the term “COVID brain.” Delirium and septic encephalopathy, also known as brain dysfunction, are common in severely ill patients. The most typical neurological features associated with COVID-19 include:

  • Headache
  • Muscle pain (common in both mild and severe cases)
  • Ischemic stroke
  • Smell dysfunction (more frequent in mild cases and especially in younger people and females)

What Complications Do COVID-19 Survivors Face?

The long-term cognitive effects of COVID-19 might be linked to underlying inflammatory processes. Still, it’s equally likely that patients with COVID-19 experience silent strokes or a lack of oxygen that damages their brains.

Silent strokes typically impact the brain’s white matter — the wiring between brain cells that enables different parts of the brain to communicate with each other. This wiring is essential for focusing. When it is damaged, the ability to focus is impaired.

There is one inevitable conclusion from the current studies: COVID-19 infection frequently leads to brain damage. Neurologic complications occur in approximately half of all hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Although many people who have recovered from coronavirus can resume their daily lives without difficulty (even if they have some deficits in attention), there are a number of people who may experience difficulty now or later.

What Risk Factors May Lead to Neurological Issues in COVID-19 Patients?

Research suggests that up to 14% of people who develop severe COVID-19 complications have an inadequate interferon response. Interferon is a medication used to treat infections and it is a protein naturally produced by the body.

In some people, this happens because their own antibodies mistakenly attack and neutralize their interferons. Other people have a genetic mutation that prevents their body from producing enough of a certain type of interferon.

An inadequate interferon response could help explain why some people — especially some young people without underlying conditions — get so much sicker than others their age.

Another important reason for differences in severity of COVID-19 illness is also related to the immune system. If the immune system doesn't turn off once the virus is controlled, it can go into overdrive. This could result in an intense and widespread inflammatory response damaging tissues throughout the body. This is often referred to as a cytokine storm.

Take Charge of Your Neurologic Health

You deserve to feel in control of your neurologic health, and we’re here to help. If you’re feeling lasting effects after recovering from COVID-19, or want help with any other mental health concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out. A supportive care team is here for your whole-health care needs.

To request an appointment or learn more about our services, click here or call Call800-934-0980.

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