Exploring what the science says so far on how COVID-19 affects our brains

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This 2020 electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles that cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S.

Brain fog. Memory problems. Mood changes. Those are some of the signs that COVID-19 is affecting our brains, according to many researchers. Though much is still unknown, some studies have found that the virus can cause long-term damage to our brains.

One study from the U.K. found that COVID-19 may cause gray matter and tissue damage. Another study from late 2021 found that about 13 percent of hospitalized COVID-19 patients developed a new neurological disorder soon after they were infected.

On Wednesday, MPR News host Angela Davis spoke with two researchers who are studying how COVID affects our brains.


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Dr. James Meschia is a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla. He is leading a study on the link between COVID and increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia.

Gülin Öz is a professor of radiology at the University of Minnesota. She holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and is leading a multiyear study aimed at understanding how long COVID impacts our brains.

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Hear their conversation using the audio player above and read the highlights below.

Gülin Öz said conventional imaging has detected a range of problems.

“Especially in the hospitalized population, the neurological effects can be quite severe, spanning stroke, seizures, various lesions, an altered mental state,” Öz said.

She added that for patients who experience chronic neurological symptoms like brain fog or fatigue for months after infection with COVID-19, brain imaging can appear normal.

Dr. James Meschia said patients with broad symptoms such as headache, fatigue, weakness and trouble focusing are too often written off.

“I think one of the things we can say about patients with COVID or recovering from COVID is that there is now objective evidence for neurologic injury at some level,” Meschia said.  

Different brain imaging technology has shown metabolic differences in patients who previously had COVID, too, Öz added.

Lucy, a St. Paul hospital chaplain, called in to talk about her interactions with patients who are struggling.

“I am often referred to patients who are experiencing brain fog after COVID. And sometimes their care providers are thinking of it as a spiritual problem or a psychological problem,” she said.

“It's very painful, because I think the hardest part is the feeling that there's something wrong with them, but they can't quite get their finger on it. … And so just I see a lot of ... self-blame and confusion,” she added.

Deciphering different symptoms and causes can be difficult, Meschia said. “No matter what, regardless of the cause — or what we say in medicine, the etiology — the patients need to be treated with dignity and respect, and their symptoms need to be taken seriously.” 

Through his research, he hopes to answer questions about whether COVID-related neurologic injury could predispose patients to future cognitive impairments or neurodegenerative processes, like Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you been experiencing lingering impacts from a COVID-19 infection? Tell us about your experience.