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Coronavirus may affect brain weeks after recovery

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Posted at 9:16 AM, Mar 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-26 10:17:41-04

We're learning coronavirus may affect people's brain well beyond their physical recovery, even if they only had mild symptoms to start.

The Neuro COVID-19 Clinic at Northwestern Memorial Hospital looked at so-called COVID long-haulers, specifically at people who got COVID-19 early in the pandemic, but were never hospitalized and had symptoms that lasted more than six weeks.

They found more than half of those people were experiencing things like brain fog, headaches, fatigue, and numbness or tingling. There were other symptoms as well, all impacting their overall quality of life.

“This is reminiscent to brain fog experienced by people with traumatic brain injury or concussion patients with chemotherapy brain fog and also patients with the chronic fatigue syndrome brain fog,” said Dr. Igor Koralnik, Neuro-infectious Diseases Chief at Northwestern Medicine.

What's interesting is a majority of the people who volunteered for the study and suffered from long-haul symptoms were women, and a number have a history of auto-immune diseases.

There were also higher instances of people suffering from anxiety or depression before they got COVID-19.

“In this population is consistent with the hypothesis that it's not a persistent infection of the brain that's causing long COVID syndrome, but rather a post infectious autoimmune problem, because women are more likely than men to have autoimmune diseases,” said Dr. Koralnik.

Some of the people experiencing the worst COVID long-haul symptoms were referred for cognitive rehab tailored to their age and issues.

Another important factor in this study – not all the people had tested positive for COVID-19 before they experienced these long-term neurological issues. That's because either testing wasn't available or accurate at the time. So, they may experience more difficulty getting treatment.

“Sometimes they are told that well, it may be all in their head or their hypochondriac or they're just anxious, and so the field, the stigma can rejection, unfortunately, because of that, although they have the same exact symptoms, as all the others who are laboratory positive,” said Dr. Koralnik.

While most COVID long-haul patients tend to improve over time, there are still long-haulers who continue to experience symptoms more than nine months later.