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“COVID-19 poses a serious risk to brain health,” researchers said.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that being infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – profoundly impacts brain health in many ways. From the very early days of the pandemic, brain fog emerged as a significant health condition that many experience after Covid. But now scientists have found abundant evidence which suggests that being infected with SARS-CoV-2 can negatively impact brain health. They studied people with a mild to moderate form of the virus and found significant, prolonged inflammation of the brain and changes that “are commensurate with seven years of brain aging”. 

In the study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers detailed the numerous previous studies that highlight what they describe as the “indelible mark” that Covid leaves on the brain and its functioning. They explained that “large epidemiological analyses” showed that people who were infected with the virus were at an increased risk of cognitive deficits including memory problems. They also cited imaging studies done on people before and after their infections, which showed “shrinkage of brain volume” and “altered brain structure” after the virus. 

According to the researchers, people who require hospitalisation or intensive care amid their Covid infection may develop “cognitive deficits and other brain damage that are equivalent to 20 years of aging”. 

Additionally, Ziyad Al-Aly, a physician, clinical epidemiologist and the co-author of the study, also cited data from 11 studies that showed that Covid increased the risk of development of new-onset dementia in people older than 60. He even noted that autopsies performed on people who died with COVID revealed “devastating damage” in their brains. 

Studies assessing patients hospitalized with COVID who experienced brain fog indicate that the virus can disrupt the blood-brain barrier, “the shield that protects the nervous system, which is the control and command center of our bodies,” Ziyad Al-Aly said.

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He also cited another study which assessed cognitive abilities including spatial reasoning, memory and planning in nearly 113,000 people who had previously had Covid. “The researchers found that those who had been infected had significant deficits in memory and executive task performance,” he wrote.

The same also found that “those who had mild and resolved COVID-19 showed cognitive decline equivalent to a three-point loss of IQ”. 

“Taken together, these studies show that COVID-19 poses a serious risk to brain health, even in mild cases, and the effects are now being revealed at the population level,” Ziyad Al-Aly said. 

“The growing body of research now confirms that COVID-19 should be considered a virus with a significant impact on the brain. The implications are far-reaching, from individuals experiencing cognitive struggles to the potential impact on populations and the economy,” he added. 

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