World Brain Day 2021: How does Covid-19 affect the brain?

Patients who suffered silent strokes or lack of oxygen that damaged their brain, are susceptible to the long-term cognitive effects, says a doctor

The pandemic has made people particularly cautious and health conscious. Around the world, many people have started to prioritise their well-being, reading and learning about the various ways in which this ever-evolving virus can harm them.

Just like other organs in the body, the virus is understood to affect the brain as well. According to a study by WebMD, about 1 in 7 persons, who have had Covid-19, have developed neurological side effects, or symptoms that affected their brain function. They have experienced confusion, loss of smell, life-threatening strokes, and even fatality.

Dr Vinay Goyal, director, neurology at Institute of Neurosciences, Medanta, says based on research, there are four predominant ways in which the COVID-19 virus can affect the brain:

1. The virus may have the capacity to intrude the brain, causing a severe and sudden infection. This may occur due to the virus entering the bloodstream or nerve endings, indicated by a loss of smell.

2. The immune system, in its attempt to combat it, can produce a maladaptive inflammatory response, which can cause significant damage to tissues and organs.

3. Physiological changes that the body undergoes due to the virus, which can account for brain dysfunction.

4. The tendency in patients to suffer a stroke. The blood-clotting system in patients with the illness is highly abnormal, with the chances of clot formation being much higher. In case these blood clots narrow the arteries leading to the brain, one can suffer a stroke.

Brain Fog

‘Brain Fog’ is the term commonly used for referring to Covid complications of the brain. Dr Goyal says it “encompasses various lingering symptoms of the virus related to the brain”.

“These symptoms are commonly experienced a few weeks after recovering from the virus. Some of the most common signs include short-term memory loss, poor attention span or fatigue. Others may suffer from more serious symptoms such as confusion, loss of smell and taste, headaches, seizures and stroke. This is due to low levels of oxygen for a prolonged period of time.”

Among the major cognitive effects, a lot of ICU patients who have acute respiratory failure or shock from any cause, exhibit a higher degree of cognitive impairment as compared to those with moderate traumatic brain injury, says the doctor, adding, “These affect memory, function and attention and lead to other long-term challenges like anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

Long-term cognitive effects of Covid-19

Patients who suffered silent strokes or lack of oxygen that damaged their brain, are susceptible to the long-term cognitive effects. Silent strokes affect the brain’s white matter, thereby hindering communication. This leads to a challenge in sustained attention.

Thus, the doctor advises you to be on the lookout for these signs and symptoms post recovery, and reach out immediately for timely management and treatment.

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