Insight into the Neurological Effects of COVID-19 Deepens

Nearly eight months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s still much that scientists and researchers don’t know about the virus. But as pharmaceutical companies race to develop a vaccine and the effects of the pandemic are still being felt in national economies, local lockdowns, and rising death counts around the world, studies that are deepening our understanding of the virus’s potential neurological impacts are beginning to emerge.

It’s already been widely observed that COVID-19 can cause lingering neurological effects in individuals who have tested positive for the virus, whether or not they’re experiencing the respiratory complications that it’s known for. Besides the widespread reports of a loss of taste and/or smell, COVID-19 patients have also been known to experience encephalitis, anoxia, seizures, and both ischemic and hemorrhagic strokes. Dr. Michael J. Hall, a staff neuropsychologist at Iowa City VA Healthcare System, posited that viral encephalitis and its inflammatory lesions in the brain may be a direct result of COVID-19.

Does COVID-19 Directly Attack the Nervous System?
The answer to this question is still unclear to researchers. The effects of the virus once it triggers the immune system have been observed to be wide-ranging. An immune system that’s been kicked into overdrive may be the cause of a puzzling symptom – “brain fog.” This confusion and memory loss that COVID-19 patients experience may stem from the body-wide inflammation caused by an immune response. Studies have shown that substantial activation of the brain’s immune cells may cause temporary neurological impairment. However, many patients report feeling “foggy” even months after a mild case has abated.

There has also been further research into the sudden loss of taste and smell that many COVID-19 patients experience. These symptoms in and of themselves are a neurological complication, however mild they may seem. Researchers from a hospital in Belgium recently conducted a study on whether or not the central nervous system is involved in anosmia and dysosmia and ultimately concluded that these symptoms are not due to neuro-invasiveness on COVID-19’s part. At the time of this writing, there isn’t any explanation for the loss of taste and smell related to the virus.

COVID-19’s Future Impacts
While studies attempting to determine whether or not the coronavirus directly attacks the nervous system have been inconclusive, there is evidence that it’s capable of infecting brain tissue. A study conducted in Brazil on the brain tissue of individuals who died from the virus showed the presence of COVID-19 in the region of the brain responsible for functions such as memory, consciousness, and language.

COVID-19’s presence in the brain has implications for the future health of those who are diagnosed with the virus. While researchers don’t yet fully understand how the virus wreaks havoc on the brain and central nervous system, the inflammation in the body that causes symptoms like loss of smell may play a role in the pathogenesis of further neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. Following the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease increased dramatically, causing concern for the future global increase of neurological disease in the global population that could follow in COVID-19’s wake.

Nexus Health Systems is committed to staying up to date as research on COVID-19 continues to shed light on this mysterious illness. Our staff is more than prepared to treat patients that may be impacted by its neurological effects in the future, as we look toward advances in medicine and research that will someday render its threat absent.

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