COVID can impair brain function, large study suggests

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Patients recovering from coronavirus infection suffer from increased rates of neurological and psychological problems, according to a wide-ranging observational study published Thursday.

Researchers from Oxford University combed through more than a million patient files and discovered that, two years after infection, patients who had recovered from COVID-19 were at a higher risk of psychosis, dementia and “brain fog” when compared with patients who recovered from other respiratory diseases.

For some symptoms, there was an initial uptick that leveled off. Anxiety and depression fell to rates in line with other respiratory diseases after two months.

But, in the case of brain fog, for example, adults aged between 18 and 64 who had recovered from COVID-19 suffered from it at a rate 16 percent higher than patients with other respiratory diseases. The difference was more marked in those aged over 65, where increased risk was also found for psychosis and dementia.

The data, mainly from patients in the U.S., shows that minors are also affected. Children getting over COVID-19 were twice as likely to suffer from epilepsy or a seizure, and three times as likely to develop a psychotic disorder compared with those recovering from a respiratory disease, even as the absolute risk of the conditions remains low.

The study, in The Lancet Psychiatry, showed that even the milder Omicron variant of the coronavirus that is currently dominant posed similar long-term risks.

Maxime Taquet, one of the study authors, noted that only patients who were sick enough to enter the health system and receive a COVID-19 diagnosis were included in the study, which undercounts those with only mild symptoms. However, the same holds for the comparison group of patients recovered from other respiratory illnesses.

The study sought “to pull out what COVID, as the virus, does to you specifically, versus what other viruses affecting the same part of your body in a generally similar fashion might be doing,” said its lead author Paul Harrison. He added that the study was not designed to identify the biological mechanism by which the virus causes the increased risk of psychological and neurological disorder.

The paper adds to the growing body of evidence pointing to the long-lasting damage caused by the coronavirus. The issue has become a concern for governments, which are spending money to research and to treat the cluster of symptoms informally known as “long COVID,” a label that includes both neurological problems as well as fatigue and shortness of breath.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that 3.7 percent of COVID-19 patients develop a post-COVID symptom, said Janet Diaz, the WHO’s lead on the topic. Speaking at a conference on Wednesday, she said that the average severity of post-COVID conditions are equivalent to those experienced by patients with severe neck pain, Crohn’s disease or the long-term consequences of traumatic brain injury.

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