How COVID-19 can change your brain

By The Health News Team | March 23, 2022
Illustration of COVID and the brain

COVID-19 has led to a wide variety of challenges, from shuttered businesses to isolation and illness. Thankfully, we are currently seeing cases decrease and life return to somewhat normal.

For many, however, the effects of COVID-19 are long-lasting. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), more than half of COVID-19 survivors experience at least one long-term effect of the disease. Frequently reported lingering effects include fatigue, difficulty breathing, chest pain, loss of taste and smell, cognitive changes, and joint pain.

Another study in the U.K. found that COVID-19 can lead to substantial changes in the brain that persist after infection, even if the infection was mild. The study analyzed 401 brain scans of people at two points in time — before and after becoming infected with COVID-19 — allowing researchers to identify the differences caused by infection in the second scans.

A loss of gray matter
Differences found in the scans of those people who had COVID-19 included a decrease in both brain tissue thickness and gray to white tissue contrast. Such changes to the brain’s “gray matter” — where the brain’s processing is performed — can cause executive functioning problems related to information organization, problem-solving, multitasking and memory. Many patients commonly report this post-COVID effect as feeling like they have “brain fog.”

Also, tissue damage occurred in areas of the brain connected to smell and taste. The loss of taste and smell were the sixth and seventh most commonly reported long-term effects of having COVID-19 and can cause distress for those who experience them.

“While we are still learning why COVID-19 causes these changes in the brain, this research highlights that the effects of COVID-19 can be serious and long-lasting,” says Dr. Jennifer Jothen, a board-certified neurologist affiliated with Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center, Sharp Coronado Hospital and Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “We assume the changes are likely due to the inflammation the disease causes, but more research needs to be done moving forward to learn how to prevent, treat and recover from these changes.”

According to Dr. Jothen, the best way to prevent brain changes due to COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. “Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is key to the prevention of infection, serious illness and death — and can also help prevent post-COVID health problems,” she says.

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