Covid-19 May Lead to Brain Cell Damage in All Demographics

The volume of research explicitly focused on the aftereffects of Covid-19 across all demographics is small but thankfully growing. A UK team has completed a study to uncover how the SARS-CoV-2 infection changes the brain. Their study examined brain volume pre-exposure and post-exposure. The study found signs of significant brain shrinkage, equal to more than a decade of aging. The lead researcher, Gweanaelle Douaud, a professor at the University of Oxford, found those infected displayed "noticeable structural differences over time above and beyond baseline differences.” They also found that the cortical damage was significant regardless of how the infected person experienced the disease. So, even if individuals had a mild case of Covid-19 with little to no visible symptoms, many would still experience noticeable brain shrinkage. The cortical damage, and associated brain shrinkage, were present regardless of age, sex, and disease severity. However, the researchers could not isolate any data regarding how vaccination status impacted cortical damage.

Highlighted Notes From the UK BioBank Study

The size of this study was impressively thorough, drawing from the UK BioBank’s extensive database of pre and post-pandemic brain scans. Douaud and her team used as a baseline 785 individuals with healthy, standard size pre-pandemic brain scans. Once infection rates started a downward trend, the participants were contacted, and those infected with Covid-19 were rescanned. In May 2021, the research team scanned 401 of the 785 individuals in the test group. The 401 who experienced Covid-19 formed the test group, and the remaining 785 served as the control group. During the time between the first and second scans, the infected participants experienced a 0.7% reduction in brain matter compared to the control group. The results show a marked impact considering the typical middle-aged person only loses between 0.2% and 0.3% of cortical size per year. It was clear from the study that Covid-19 can lead to brain damage. However, the study did not provide insight regarding the cause of the brain shrinkage or how nerve cells were not impacted. The study also explored whether there was a connection between the loss of smell and Covid-19-related neurological damage.

Loss of smell is one of the most pervasive Covid-19 symptoms, ranging from partial to complete loss. Other researchers have found that 86% of those infected with Covid-19 reported experiencing loss of smell at some level. Besides the loss of smell, smaller percentages reported other neurological complications such as impaired cognitive function, brain fog, fatigue, and encephalography. While Douaud and her research team did not find causation or links between these brain changes and shrinkage, they did discover there are many other areas of the brain that Covid-19 can impact, including emotional and behavioral centers. While the brain changes were seen across demographics and illness severity, the reported statistics of brain shrinkage were averages for the test group. So, not every person who contracts Covid-19 will experience brain damage.

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Sources:

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-022-04569-5

https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2022/03/study-reveals-some-brain-changes-even-mild-covid-19

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