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COVID-19 brain study to explore long-term effects of the virus

A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.

COVID-19 effects on the brain.

Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.

  • The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
  • The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
  • Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.

As the coronavirus pandemic enters its fifth month, many questions remain unanswered over how the virus damages the body. Now, a group of researchers are planning a large-scale study that aims to shed light on how COVID-19 affects the brain.

The COVID-19 Brain Study plans to monitor the long-term health of 50,000 participants who have tested positive for COVID-19. The research could help answer questions like: Does COVID-19 cause cognitive impairment? And, if so, how do age, race, and sex factor into the equation?

Considering recent studies that suggest COVID-19 may cause neurological damage, the researchers say it's important to start tracking patients' health as early as possible.

"The problem is a bit like when governments were deciding to enter lockdown – timing is everything," Adrian Owen, a Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging professor at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, told Western University of Health Sciences News. "We need to start collecting this data now. We can't start looking at this issue in a year's time because if there are cognitive impairments, and we know there will be, it's going to be too late."

COVID-19 effects on the brain.

Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.

Paterson et al.

The researchers also want to find out whether there are significant differences between patients who recovered from the disease in intensive care units and those who got better at home. After all, studies have revealed that some patients may suffer a constellation of long-lasting physical, emotional, and mental problems after staying in an ICU, a condition dubbed post-intensive care syndrome.

"A year from now, we will have more than eight million people worldwide recovering from COVID-19," Owen said. "So, we may also have eight million people with short- and long-term cognitive problems."

COVID-19 and the brain

A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a study in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.

Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.

medical staff standing around patient in bedSan Diego-Area Hospitals Treat Coronavirus Patients During COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

A separate study published in the Journal of Clinical Neuroscience notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.

A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.

"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a press release. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."

If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study.


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