By now, most people are aware of the symptoms of coronavirus and the possible health outcomes, particularly for those who are older or have underlying health conditions. What’s less known are the possible impacts on cognition.
Study in this area is ongoing. However, preliminary research findings on the impact of the coronavirus on brain function have led some scientists to warn of potential long-term issues, especially for those already experiencing age-related cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
For example, a study published in Brain Communications reported that clinical and animal studies indicate the coronavirus spreads to the nervous system, with some patients experiencing neurological disorders and cognitive difficulties. The researchers wrote, “The hippocampus appears to be particularly vulnerable to coronavirus infections, thus increasing the probability of post-infection memory impairment, and acceleration of neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
Swiss Study Finds Cognitive Issues in COVID-19 Patients
In a study published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, researchers conducted a study on coronavirus patients at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland. The small study involved 13 patients who doctors examined during the post-critical stage of severe COVID-19. All had been on mechanical ventilation because of the severity of their illness.
In looking at the cognitive impact, researchers reported four of the patients experienced no cognitive impact, four experienced mild deficits and five experienced moderate to severe deficits. In looking at the details, researchers found that those who experienced mild to severe cognitive impact were affected in executive, memory, attentional and visuospatial functions.
These types of cognitive issues may manifest in daily life as difficulties in managing medications, reading comprehension, carrying on conversations and managing finances.
Those findings mirrored those in a separate study done in China. Researchers tested 29 patients for cognitive impairment after they recovered from COVID-19. Researchers reported a “potential cognitive dysfunction in patients with COVID-19,” specifically in their ability to perform tests that required sustained attention. The researchers found a possible connection between the level of inflammation experienced by patients and cognitive impairment after recovery.
Most troubling, a study from researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago found that not only do “neurologic manifestations” occur in most hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but that encephalopathy was “associated with increased morbidity and mortality, independent of respiratory disease severity.”
How the Coronavirus Damages the Brain
The long-term neurological impact of COVID-19 is something that is increasingly concerning the healthcare community and policymakers. According to Harvard Health, scientists already have some idea of how these impacts happen.
One way COVID-19 damages the brain is by direct infection, called encephalitis. But what has been more prevalent in the cases studied to date is that the coronavirus can lead to lack of oxygen to the brain, resulting in a higher risk for stroke.
Also, studies have shown people who stay in an intensive care unit for any reason may later experience anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and even depression.
All this makes adhering to the prevention strategies to avoid contracting COVID-19 more important than ever. That also includes managing your stress and anxiety, keeping up a good exercise routine and taking advantage of telemedicine.