COVID effects on the brain

Serious illness from COVID-19 can have lasting neurological impact

While the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection are still being studied, research is starting to show that severe illness from COVID-19 may be harmful to your brain’s long-term health.

“In patients who were hospitalized, up to 90% of patients are experiencing both functional and cognitive issues even six months later,” said Deepak Nair, MD, a stroke care speciaist and the director of ambulatory neurology for OSF HealthCare Illinois Neurological Institute. “These are things like memory loss and severe disability in returning to work. Half of the hospitalized patients had slow thinking, and half of those were unable to return to work after six months.”

The results, according to Dr. Nair, seem to support what medical professionals have known for years concerning the brain and how it is impacted by severe illness.

Serious illness and your brain

A recent study that took a worldwide view of problems months after recovery showed that the long-term impacts from COVID-19 lasted from a couple weeks to half a year after infection.

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“Up to 80% developed long-term symptoms,” Dr. Nair said. “The most common are fatigue and headache, loss of focus and attention, hair loss and ongoing difficulty breathing. Three of those could be considered neurological problems, which is not surprising after any serious illness. It correlates to the overall stress to multiple organ systems that COVID is proven to cause. So it’s nothing unique, necessarily. It fits in with what we know about serious illness.

“There are strong parallels between COVID-19 and other infectious diseases we’ve dealt with,” Dr. Nair said. “A lot of what we’re experiencing with COVID is reintroducing concerns we’ve always dealt with, taking us back to basic thinking on the consequences of serious illness on the population.”

Essentially, what experts are finding is that neurological complications are most common in patients who become critically ill from the novel coronavirus.

There are a number of reasons why serious illness can harm your brain. In an attempt to fight off an infection, your own body’s immune system can make it harder for your brain to get the nutrients it needs.

As your body fights infection, it also can become easier for harmful pathogens to get through your brain’s protective barrier. That can lead to a condition called metabolic encephalopathy, which can affect cognitive functions like mood and memory and often cause delirium.

Stroke can occur, too, which can have long-term effects.

“The brain may control everything else, but it’s supported by the regulatory functions of other organs,” Dr. Nair said. “So, the more stress the body is under, the more delayed harm you can suffer to your nervous system. The sicker you are, the more likely it is that your brain will be impacted.”

In addition to the immediate neurological symptoms of COVID-19 –  such as headache, fatigue, loss of taste and smell, clotting problems and trouble focusing –  medical professionals are seeing lingering effects, too. Psychological and psychiatric issues months after infection appear to be more common among people who suffered severe illness from COVID-19. Dr. Nair believes that is likely caused by the physiological toll of the body’s immune response to the infection.

There is still a lot of research to do on the subject, and it will be going on for quite some time. For now, Dr. Nair cautions that prevention and early treatment are the best ways to avoid neurological consequences from a COVID-19 infection.

What you can do

“All eligible adults should seek vaccination,” Dr. Nair said. “All the data suggests that COVID-19 is worse than the vaccine side effects, and there’s just no way to predict who will have bad outcome fighting COVID.”

And if you think you may have COVID-19, Dr. Nair implores you to seek medical treatment as soon as possible.

“Early on, people were afraid to go out and see their physician, but what we see is when we identify patients early we can use treatments that help minimize the disease,” Dr. Nair said. “We now have a well-organized treatment approach, and when we can identify patients early on, we can treat them early and help prevent serious illness that stresses your cardiac, immune and nervous systems.”

Last Updated: April 14, 2022

About Author: Ken Harris

Ken Harris is the proudest father and a writing coordinator for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare.

He has a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked as a daily newspaper reporter for four years before leaving the field and eventually finding his way to OSF HealthCare.

In his free time, Ken likes reading, fly fishing, hanging out with his dog and generally pestering his lovely, patient wife.

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Categories: Brain & Spine, COVID-19