This pandemic has been a roller coaster. Don’t wear masks – no, wear masks. Sanitize everything – no, that’s just hygiene theatre. Get this vaccine – no, get this other one. Welcome to science in real time, with knowledge changing seemingly every day. Each new study gives us a new window on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the resulting disease, our vaccines, or best ways to treat patients. At the exact same time, the virus itself changes, with new variants that make it more contagious and perhaps more deadly.
One area we’re learning more about is lingering effects. While thankfully many individuals have recovered from the illness, what longer-term consequences are they experiencing? Doctors and researchers are finding that for a certain percentage of people, COVID-19 has long-lasting adverse effects, most notably “brain fog.” Brain fog is an inability to think clearly or concentrate on tasks that are mentally demanding. Memory problems and fatigue often accompany it. These long-term effects raise the question: how does the virus affect the brain? And further, what might lie in the future for people who recover from COVID-19?
Since the first case of COVID-19 only occurred about a year and a half ago, it is impossible to know all the consequences of the virus. Still, last month a few studies reported initial information on how COVID-19 impacts the brain. One looked at the brains of patients who had died from the disorder. The other looked at outcomes in about 235,000 survivors.
The first study compared brain tissue of individuals who died from COVID-19 with people who had died from other causes, like influenza. It appears (the number of individuals studied was small) that brain damage is not directly due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as there were no traces of the virus in individuals’ brains. Instead, effects on the brain, which unfortunately were profound, seemed due to the secondary impacts of COVID-19. In particular, the inflammation that the disease induces causes damage to the brain that parallels changes seen in various neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and Huntington’s. This damage was especially evident in cells providing support for the neurons of the brain. These findings are concerning, but note they were made in patients whose COVID-19 was severe enough to cause their death.
The second study looked at neurological disorders in the six months after recovery in patients who survived COVID-19. The researchers found that about 33 percent had some neurological or psychiatric diagnosis in this period, and for 13 percent it was their first such diagnosis. For patients admitted to the ICU with more severe COVID-19, the numbers jumped to 46 percent and 26 percent for a first diagnosis. These numbers were higher than for patients who experienced influenzas or other respiratory-tract disorders. While this data needs further confirmation, it seems evident that COVID-19 can have significant long-term consequences for our brains.
These findings are further proof we should be doing all we can to stamp out this disorder as soon as possible. We can all take a few steps to protect ourselves, those we love, and everyone around us. It is now clear that the primary way COVID-19 spreads is by aerosol transmission, so social distancing and mask wearing remain essential. For those who can get it, vaccination is crucial, and getting the two recommended injections has proved necessary to reducing the impact of the new delta variant.
We are in a race that pits our evolving scientific knowledge against mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Science, through the grace of God, has given us powerful tools to care for our neighbours and ourselves. I can’t wait till the vaccines are tested and approved for children under twelve, like my two granddaughters. And I pray vaccines reach all areas of our world suffering from this disease.