Study looks into how, why COVID-19 impacts brain, memory

Problems with concentration, remembering names and more linked to coronavirus

DETROIT – Brain fog is one of the many potential complications of COVID-19.

A new study is underway to find out why -- and how -- the coronavirus can impact survivors' cognitive abilities.

A number of survivors have reported problems concentrating, multi-tasking and organization after many of their other symptoms were resolved.

Father and daughter, Diego and Natalia Ruspini said their entire family was infected with coronavirus in April.

Natalia, 17, said simple school tasks -- like remembering class times -- suddenly became difficult.

“I definitely noticed my clock in my head was off,” she recalls.

“It’s all related,” said Stanford researcher Dr. Kari Nadeau. “The fact that people are losing their sense of smell, the fact that people are losing their sense of taste, and the brain fog -- all this whole system is neurological.”

The Ruspini’s are part of a Stanford study on the long term immunity of COVID-19 patients. Researchers will look at the post-coronavirus health of about 200 survivors, including children, pregnant women, couples and families.

“We know that the virus can affect the astrocytes in the brain,” Nadeau said. “There’s probably inflammation too, but not everyone gets it.”

“We’re actually seeing these changes on cognitive tests that we’re giving to people,” said Dr. Joanna Hellmuth.

The brain fog is being documented, but the changes aren’t usually visible on brain scans.

“In some ways that’s not surprising because in other viral diseases that can lead to cognitive changes,” Hellmuth said. "Like HIV or hepatitis C, sometimes we can see totally normal brain scans.))

The study has already been extended from the original three months to four years.

It’s been about six months since the Ruspini family got COVID-19. Natalia’s mother and brother did not experience any brain fog. In fact, the entire family had different symptoms and recoveries, but they said they’re all finally starting to feel like themselves.

A different study, by UCLA, has suggested that lingering brain fog in some survivors may be a type of PTSD. That’s an effect that was seen in past outbreaks of SARS and MERS.

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