striking brain abnormalities visible up to six months after infection

The brain regions affected are related to problems commonly reported by lung COVID patients, such as fatigue, memory loss and difficulty concentrating.

In the meantime, almost everyone has had the corona virus among their members. How serious the course of the disease is varies from person to person. Some have mild or no symptoms at all, while others are completely felled by the virus. And then you also have people who continue to have neurological complaints for weeks or even months after they contracted the infection. To learn more about these lasting consequences of COVID-19, researchers decided to study brain scans of recovered corona patients in a new study. And it shows that the corona virus leaves clear traces in the brain.

neurological symptoms
Not everyone who has recovered from a corona infection can resume his life as usual. In fact, one in eight Dutch people have long-term complaints. This is also referred to as lung COVID (see box). “Many people who have been infected with COVID-19 report that they continue to experience cognitive and psychological problems for a long time,” said researcher Sapna Mishra. “Think of fatigue, reduced or total loss of sense of smell, anxiety and insomnia. These COVID survivors are struggling to live a normal life.”

More about lung COVID
Lung COVID, or ‘post-COVID-19’, is a condition in which someone, after being infected with the coronavirus, continues to have symptoms for a long time. This person can suffer from poor health even months after being infected. The complaints that can occur are very diverse. For example, in addition to fatigue, memory loss and concentration problems, lung COVID can also include dizziness, tingling, headache and depression. At the moment, lung COVID is still a very puzzling condition. It is unclear, for example, why one gets it and the other does not. In addition, anyone who has had COVID-19 can also get lung COVID: it does not matter whether you had mild or severe symptoms during the acute illness. Even people who have not been hospitalized can experience persistent complaints. However, a more serious form of lung COVID is more common in patients who were hospitalized with a critical health condition.

Recently, several studies have shown that the coronavirus is a so-called ‘neurotropic virus’. This means that the virus affects the brain and can therefore cause various neurological symptoms. “This highlights the urgent need for an investigation into these impacts,” said Mishra.

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And so it happened. To learn more about the neurological effects, Mishra and his colleagues decided to study brain scans of 46 cured corona patients and 30 people who have not yet been infected (the control group). The researchers used a special type of MRI and produced brain scans within six months of recovery. Patients with lung COVID also participated in the study.

Brain abnormalities
The findings show that COVID-19 has a clear effect on the brain. Because with the help of the brain scans, the researchers found striking differences in the brains of the recovered corona patients compared to those of the healthy control group. “We detected changes in the composition of the brain tissues of these recovered corona patients up to six months after infection,” Mishra explains. The researchers found the most striking differences in the frontal lobe (particularly in the amount of white matter present) and the brainstem. And with that, the puzzle pieces fall into place. “These brain regions can be directly associated with the reported symptoms of lung COVID,” Mishra explains.

Serious complications
All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that a corona infection can have serious consequences; even if you think you’ve already recovered. You can suffer from persistent symptoms for a long time. And the reason for that is demonstrable in the brain. “This study points to the serious, long-term complications that can be caused by the coronavirus,” says Mishra. “It expands our knowledge about the impact of the virus on the human brain.”

Temporary or permanent?
A pressing question is whether the observed brain abnormalities will eventually disappear again. At the moment, Mishra does not dare to give a conclusive answer. “We need to investigate further first,” he says. “We will know in a few years whether there is a temporary or permanent change.” Still, Mishra is optimistic. “The brain is plastic,” he continues. This means that we can influence the functioning of the brain and the connections in the brain. “That is why we expect that with the help of rehabilitation, patients can become their old selves again.”

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The researcher hopes that the study can help doctors and psychologists to better treat patients suffering from lung COVID. In this way, the findings can better inform them about how they can guide patients to the best possible recovery. In addition, Mishra continues his research unabated. For example, he plans to continue to follow the same test subjects for a while, in order to find out whether the observed brain abnormalities persist over a longer period of time, or perhaps slowly disappear again.

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