How does COVID-19 affect the Brain?

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How does COVID-19 affect the Brain

COVID-19 is an infectious disease that has caused havoc globally. This started in 2020 and spread to all the corners of the world. There was not a single country or city that was spared from the coronavirus.

Different people were diagnosed with a number of different symptoms. This means, it was difficult to diagnose it on time. This affects the respiratory system and can even lead to death.

Most common symptoms include dry cough, tiredness and fever. Some of the lesser common symptoms include sore throat, diarrhea, aches and pains, headaches, conjunctivitis, rash on the skin and even loss to smell and taste.

As known, COVID-19 has been declared a pandemic and there is no indication when this will end.

How can COVID-19 affect the Brain?

Not many are aware that besides affecting the different human organs, the coronavirus can also affect the brain.

There are patients who have got the infection without showing any physical symptoms, but instead, experienced tiredness and found it difficult to read even a text message. This was followed by a number of neurological issues and severe headaches.

These patients found it difficult to concentrate on everyday tasks, like cooking, cleaning and more. They found it tough to enjoy the TV or play video games.

There are more than 30% of COVID-19 patients who have gone through neurological issues and psychiatric problems with this virus. These symptoms and problems can continue not only for weeks but also a few months.

Last year, there were a number of healthcare systems and hospitals that opened as ‘post-covid clinics’ to help the patients who were in the ICU with severe COVID-19. During this time, these hospitals and clinics witnessed an inflow of patients who had not suffered from any severity of the infection but were suffering from cognitive issues, post covid.

It was surprising to note that the patients, who did not require hospitalization during the infection, were facing these problems. These patients were expected to have long periods of recovery.

It is not yet clear how many of the patients with cognitive issues will recover and how many of these will face problems on a long term basis.

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There are some patients who are unable to deal with the brain fog or concentrate on their work even after consulting medical specialists. Some of these patients are diagnosed with a nervous system disorder, dysautonomia post-viral. This disorder causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, and also fast breathing when lying down or even sitting.

This is, at times, treated with mitodrine, a drug for blood-pressure or fludrocortisones, which is a corticosteroid. This disorder makes you feel as if your body is going to break-down.

Brain affected by the Virus

Though this virus does not affect the brain directly, it can cause problems that can range from seizures, strokes or only confusion.

This trend is similar to other complications of the ‘brain fog’ by the H1N1 and the SARS virus.  Experts suspect that these problems arise due to stress of going through the infection and living during these difficult times.

Possible Complications of the Brain

‘Brain fog’ due to COVID-19 is definitely a vague term that is used to describe the different lingering symptoms relating to the mental function. These side-effects normally occur after an individual has recovered from the infection, after a few weeks.

Almost 20% of Covid patients have experienced memory loss, fatigue, or poor attention span.

There are many who have reported more serious complications that are related to the brain. Some of the experts believe that this is due to having low levels of oxygen during the infection. These brain-related issues include

  • Loss of smell and taste
  • Confusion
  • Inability to focus
  • Headaches
  • Change in behavior
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Seizures
  • Stroke

Many Covid patients are developing nerve problems outside the spinal cord and the brain. These include GBS (Guillain-Barre Syndrome) which can cause paralysis or even lung failure. Research is being conducted to find out the link between the virus and GBS.

There are specific treatments for COVID-19 that can bring down the gray matter volume in the brain’s outer layers. Studies have proved that those patients who had to go for oxygen therapy, had low volume of the gray matter in the frontal lobe of the brain as compared to those patients who did not require this oxygen therapy. This low gray matter in this specific are of the brain can lead to an intense disability for nearly 6 months after recovery from COVID-19.

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How can COVID-19 lead to Damage in the Brain?

Though the experts do not have any proof of how this covid infection affects the brain, there are many theories being floated.

  1. Severe Infection

One major reason for COVID-19 affecting your brain is due to the fact that this virus can enter the CNS (Central Nervous System). This includes the spinal cord and the brain.  Researchers have managed to find the genetic material of the virus in the spinal fluid of some patients. These particles were also found in the brain cells of few patients.

This can happen if the virus enters the bloodstream or also the nerve endings. This might be one of the reasons some of the patients lose their sense of smell. This happens in cases where the virus has entered via the olfactory bulb located near the sinuses in the brain area.

A study on those who died from the virus found that there was leakage and damage from the blood vessels into the olfactory bulb.

  1. Overdrive of the Immune system

There is a possibility of the immune system getting overwhelmed when fighting this virus. This can lead to an inflammatory response that leads to harm to the organs and the tissues. This response can be more damaging as compared to the virus. Some cases of inflammation in the body are due to the immune system going amok. This means, the immune system gets hyperactive and starts making antibodies that are considered to be ‘self-destructive’. These are known as ‘autoantibodies’. These can contribute to blood clots and inflammation.

  1. Changes in the Body

The physical changes your body goes through, during this infection can bring up the risk of brain infections. This can be low levels of oxygen, high fevers, or even failure of different organs. This can lead to coma or delirium in severe cases of COVID-19.

  1. Blood Clotting

The chance of blood clotting is high in the COVID-19 patients. These clots can form in the lungs or in the deep veins. If these block the arteries there are chances of you getting a stroke.

The ICU Brain

It has been observed that patients who were admitted to the ICU were at a greater risk of developing cognitive issues. Almost one third of the patients who were admitted in the ICU due to severe respiratory issues, had symptoms very similar to a brain injury that was traumatic.

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One reason given for this is that the patients in the ICU were often sedated to bring down the levels of discomfort and anxiety, especially those patients who were put on mechanical ventilators. Sedatives are known to bring down brain activity. This can cause delirium. This is a sudden change in your mental state that leads to disorientation and confusion. Patients might not remember where they are or even have trouble focusing. This condition can last for a few hours to a few days or even to a few weeks.

The longer the person is delirious the cognitive picture gets worse.

Biological Mechanisms

There is a possibility that this COVID-19 infection triggers ‘brain inflammation’. There are few COVID-19 patients who have suffered swelling of the brain, or encephalitis. This can lead to double vision or confusion. In cases that are serious, this can lead to problems in hearing, speech and even vision. If these problems are neglected, the patients can face serious cognitive issues.

Health Crisis

There are chances that the cognitive issues due to the COVID-19 will improve eventually. There are many traumatic brain injury and stroke patients who recover in a spontaneous manner and their brain heals within three to six months.

There are many experts who believe that cognitive issues due to this COVID-19 can led to dementia. This was due to the fact that the scientist found that the COVID-19 patients, who were hospitalized, had similar neurodegeneration, blood biomarkers and inflammation to those suffering from Alzheimer’s.

At present, there is no specific treatment for memory loss, brain fog, and other cognitive effects related to COVID-19. Instead, the professionals are using occupational therapy, cognitive therapy or pathology of speech-language for treating the symptoms. Studies are being carried out to get a better understanding of the treatments that can work for cognitive problems due to COVID-19.

There are some patients who are badly affected and have developed lasting neurological and cognitive problems long after the COVID-19 infection. Some of them might be disabled permanently and require care on long-term basis.