Effects of COVID on the Brain

The SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for what is commonly known as COVID causes patients to suffer from a wide range of symptoms. In addition to those that impact the respiratory and vascular systems, people are also experiencing changes in their brain and neurological functioning. Until we gain comprehensive knowledge of how the disease negatively influences these vital parts of the body, we cannot fully understand how to treat COVID-related conditions.

COVID and Brain-related symptoms

Thanks to technology that has made global communication possible, scientists are able to learn how the virus is affecting people throughout the world in real time. Through the use of this data, experts are concluding that COVID is bringing about the following brain-related symptoms:

  • Confusion.
  • Seizures.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Loss of smell and taste.
  • Stroke.
  • Mood and behavior changes.
  • Difficulty focusing.

Additionally, some patients with the coronavirus virus are experiencing peripheral neurological issues such as Guillain-Barré syndrome that can cause paralysis and even respiratory failure.

Potential Effects of COVID on the Brain

With every day that goes by and with each COVID-19 variant that evolves, experts are coming to a greater understanding of the ways it is changing the bodies of those who contract it. Although the jury is still out, researchers currently believe that the virus affects the brain in five specific ways:

  • Oxygen deprivation. When COVID sufferers experience respiratory failure, there may be a period of time during which the brain does not receive the oxygen that is vital in order for it to function properly. Even if a patient is revived, the results of this hypoxia can be permanent.
  • Brain infection. Although rare, doctors are seeing some cases in which the virus may be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, perhaps by entering through the olfactory bulb located right above the nose. If this is true, it may explain why COVID temporarily or even permanently robs people of their ability to taste and smell.
  • Pathologically elevated immune response. Our bodies are constantly fighting off pathogens via a set of components and processes known as the immune system. However, there are times when this infection-fighting internal army goes into overdrive. If this is happening with COVID, it helps to explain the high levels of inflammation that are causing so much tissue and organ damage in patients.
  • Systemic chaos. When someone comes down with severe COVID, the symptoms can include high fevers, respiratory failure, cardiac inflammation and even multiple organ failure. This distressing array of physiological changes may well contribute to or even cause the brain-related effects like coma and delirium.
  • Clotting abnormalities. Stroke is one of the serious impacts that COVID can inflict on patients of all ages. Researchers suspect that the virus leads to severe malfunctions in the vascular system, specifically involving the increased likelihood of clots in deep veins or in the lungs. If such a blockage occurs in an artery leading to the brain, a debilitating or life-threatening stroke is the result. In addition, the virus can negatively affect cells that line blood vessels, including those that travel through the brain. As the immune system seeks to destroy the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen, it may also damage adjacent neuron cells.

For many, the effects of SARS-CoV-2 are mild and relatively short-term in duration. However, that is not true for everyone.

Long COVID and the Brain

As the COVID pandemic progressed, doctors began to notice that a significant percentage of patients failed to return to their prior level of health even after the active infection stage had passed. This chronic condition is now known as long COVID. Those who suffer from it tend to experience the following symptoms:

  • Headaches.
  • Memory impairment.
  • Cognitive deterioration.

These symptoms tend to be felt well beyond six weeks after infection and happen even in people whose condition was never serious enough to require hospitalization. Although more studies are required, scientists are becoming increasingly convinced that the COVID-19 virus poses a significant threat to brain functioning. Findings indicate that some of the same toxic substances that are found in the brains of older Alzheimer’s and other dementia patients also exist in high amounts in COVID sufferers. Some researchers are even concerned that these elevated levels may lead to a greater likelihood of having serious brain diseases even years later.

All signs indicate that SARS-CoV-2 is here to stay in some form. For that reason, the importance of exploring its short- and long-term effects on the brain is underscored. It also stands to reason that patients will benefit from treatments that mitigate the severity of the disease’s effects as quickly as possible to reduce the severity of chronic changes.