Covid-19 survivors are reporting long-term effects on their brains

Unwelcome souvenirs.
Unwelcome souvenirs.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare providers’ concerns centered on what the virus could do the respiratory system. But as the months dragged on, scientists documented reports of loss of smell and taste, “brain fog,” mood disorders, and other psychiatric conditions, even in people who never got sick enough to go to the hospital. Today, scientists are gathering even more evidence that Covid-19 may be tied to neurological conditions, even months after an infection.

In an analysis published April 6, researchers out of London’s Oxford University found that roughly a third of over 236,000 Covid-19 survivors went on to develop a range of neurological symptoms. The most common among these was anxiety, at 17.4%, and mood disorders, at 13.7%. Other conditions the team looked out for were dementia, tremors, paralysis, psychosis, stroke, and swelling of the brain.

The neurological effects of Covid-19

The study is only observational; that means that it can’t explain how Covid-19 infections might lead to disruptions in the neurological system. But it does show a definitive an increase in neurological cases. “I find the results quite exciting form a scientific perspective, because they mirror what we’ve seen clinically,” says Luana Marque, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who practices at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As with so many aspects of Covid-19, the next step is more study. Researchers will be looking at how the virus could cause these long-term consequences, in the interest of helping healthcare providers try to prevent those conditions in future patients. Unfortunately, that kind of work may take years.

In the interim, healthcare providers will have to contend with what the Oxford team expects to be a “substantial” impact on health and social care systems. Covid-19 could be the disaster that surfaces a major hidden mental health crisis. “All of us in the field believed there was an uptick and it’d stay there for a while,” says Maque. “But until [the study came out] I couldn’t say what it looked like.”

Covid-19 and mental health

The disaster is arriving alongside a shortage in US mental health professionals that was acute even before the pandemic. As of 2016, there were roughly 140,000 mental health professionals in the US; meanwhile, 64 million Americans (20% of the population) are living with mental illness (pdf). Though treatments for each condition vary, they take a massive toll on the health and productivity of the US workforce: The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2030, the global costs of mental health could balloon to $6 trillion vs. roughly $2.5 trillion now, most of which. are in indirect costs.

Awareness is the first step in treating any condition. Now that healthcare providers know to look out for some of these neurological complications in post-Covid-19 patients, they can act faster when something seems to be going wrong.

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