In an effort to ultimately reduce such potential harm, the GCBH report released today, “COVID-19 and Brain Health: The Global Council on Brain Health’s Recommendations on What to Do Now,” outlines key areas of future research to be pursued. They include the potentially long-lasting symptoms of COVID; its relationship to and impact on dementias; and isolation’s effect on the mental well-being and brain health of older Americans.
Brain symptoms — and how long they may last
As researchers struggle to understand the immediate effects of COVID-19 on the brain — from loss of a sense of taste to “brain fog” — their longer-range impact remains a mystery.
A study published in the Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology analyzed more than 500 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 and found that neurologic symptoms such as muscle pain, headaches, dizziness, and loss of taste and smell occurred in 82 percent of cases. For some individuals, these symptoms linger even after they’ve otherwise recovered. “There is some provocative data that suggests that for some people, there may be long-term effects such as persistent trouble with attention, concentration and multitasking, as well as loss of sense of taste and smell,” says Jason Karlawish, M.D., a GCBH member and professor of medicine, medical ethics and health policy, and neurology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.
But it’s still unclear, Karlawish notes, why this happens and whether patients will gradually recover from such neurological damage. “There’s a real urgency to get these answers, especially for older adults whose brains are already at higher risk of cognitive problems,” he says. Among other groups, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health has launched a database to collect some of this information, he adds.
The role and risks of dementia
Another area the GCBH report suggests as a critical research need is assessing whether COVID-19 will contribute to later-in-life cognitive decline or dementia. “We’re hopeful that a deeper understanding of how COVID-19 affects neurological function will also help us understand why some people suffer from cognitive symptoms longer than others, and whether people who suffer from diseases that affect the brain, such as Alzheimer’s, are at increased risk,” Karlawish says. “Right now, we just don’t know.”