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The Strange Ways COVID Can Affect Our Brain

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According to the CDC, one in five adults will suffer COVID-19 long-term consequences. Long COVID can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, such as brain fog or difficulty to focus, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, tingling or numbness in the limbs, changed sense of smell or taste, and even depression or anxiety. Even with asymptomatic patients, research suggests COVID-19 may be linked to abnormalities in the heart, lungs, and other organs.

Using a unique type of MRI, researchers have found neurological symptoms in COVID-19 patients six months after recovery, according to a report will be presented next week at the Radiological Society of North America’s annual meeting (RSNA).

According to the CDC, one in five adults will suffer COVID-19 long-term consequences. Long COVID can cause a variety of neurological symptoms, such as brain fog or difficulty to focus, headaches, insomnia, dizziness, tingling or numbness in the limbs, changed sense of smell or taste, and even depression or anxiety. Even with asymptomatic patients, research suggests COVID-19 may be linked to abnormalities in the heart, lungs, and other organs.

As more people get COVID-19 and recover, researchers are studying its long-term effects.

Susceptibility-weighted imaging was employed in this study to examine COVID-19’s effects on the brain. Magnetic susceptibility is the degree to which particular materials, such as blood, iron, and calcium, will become magnetized in the presence of a magnetic field. This ability helps doctors find and keep an eye on a number of neurological problems, such as microbleeds, vascular malformations, brain tumors, and stroke.

“Group-level studies have not previously focused on COVID-19 changes in magnetic susceptibility of the brain despite several case reports signaling such abnormalities,” says study co-author Sapna S. Mishra. 

This new study “highlights this new aspect of the neurological effects of COVID-19 and reports significant abnormalities in COVID survivors.”

Researchers looked at the susceptibility-weighted imaging data of 46 COVID patients who had recovered and 30 healthy people who were used as controls. Imaging was performed six months after the injury. The most often mentioned symptoms among individuals with long COVID were fatigue, difficulty sleeping, a lack of focus, and memory problems.

“Changes in susceptibility values of brain regions may be indicative of local compositional changes,” Mishra adds. “Susceptibilities may reflect the presence of abnormal quantities of paramagnetic compounds, whereas lower susceptibility could be caused by abnormalities like calcification or lack of paramagnetic molecules containing iron.”

According to MRI findings, individuals who recovered from COVID-19 had frontal lobe and brain stem susceptibility values that were considerably greater than those of healthy controls. The frontal lobe clusters largely display variations in the white matter.

“These brain regions are linked with fatigue, insomnia, anxiety, depression, headaches and cognitive problems,” Mishra adds.

Frontal lobe clusters include the left orbital-inferior frontal gyrus (a critical region for language comprehension and production) and right orbital-inferior frontal gyrus (related with attention, motor inhibition, imagery, and social cognitive processes) and surrounding white matter tracts.

The right ventral diencephalon region of the brain stem showed a substantial difference as well, according to the researchers. This area is involved in a number of vital biological processes, such as coordinating the release of hormones with the endocrine system, transmitting sensory and motor information to the cerebral cortex, and controlling circadian cycles (the sleep-wake cycle).

“This study points to serious long-term complications that may be caused by the coronavirus, even months after recovery from the infection,” Mishra adds. “The present findings are from the small temporal window. However, the longitudinal time points across a couple of years will elucidate if there exists any permanent change.”

A longitudinal investigation is being carried out by the researchers on the same patient cohort in order to evaluate whether or not these brain abnormalities continue to be present over a longer period of time.

Source: RSNA.org/press22

Image Credit: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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