7th Jul 2020

COVID-19 FAQ: What are the long-term health effects of COVID-19 on the brain?

7th Jul 2020

Curated by Endre Szvetnik

For a long time during the COVID-19 pandemic, the novel coronavirus was associated primarily with lung damage. However, emerging research suggests an array of other conditions survivors of a severe form COVID-19 need to cope with.

Cognitive impairment is one of the conditions survivors of severe COVID-19 have to deal with

Among them are the long-term effects on the brain, which includes physical damage, cognitive impairment (a difficulty to perform previously routine tasks involving thinking) and delirium. Cognitive impairment is likely to happen after Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) that occurs according to this observational paper in over 8% of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU). ARDS is a condition where the lungs don’t supply enough oxygen to vital organs. With cognitive impairment, it becomes difficult to concentrate, remember things and make everyday decisions that used to be simple. Another effect of COVID-19 can be actual damage, resulting in encephalopathy, a brain dysfunction causing an altered mental state and mental and emotional disturbance. Around 70% of COVID-19 patients treated in ICU also suffer delirium, which can manifest itself in hallucinations, agitation, aggression or quite contrary, being withdrawn and quiet.

How long does it take to recover? Studies into mild cognitive impairment suggest that a proportion (16%) of patients can recover approximately a year after being allowed home from the hospital. Other, population-based studies (observing people after hospital release) suggest that recovery is quite common and occurs between 29-55% of cases. Delirium, on the other hand, can lead to long-term impacts. According to a 2010 study,  71% of former ICU patients who needed mechanical ventilation, were still suffering from cognitive impairment 12 months after hospital release. Another research paper reported cognitive deficits among post-delirium patients for up to 18 months after hospital discharge. Due to COVID-19 being a new pandemic, research is still lacking into the brain damage caused by the disease. However, based on experience treating brain traumas, physicians advise regular exercise, good sleep and a healthy diet to help the brain recover. They also prescribe targeted brain training programmes to improve brain function but there is an ongoing scientific debate about their value.

Here is the current state of science on a Sparrho pinboard. NB: The pinboard contains research papers that have not been peer-reviewed yet, meaning that they have not gone through the standard scientific validation process yet.

Do you want to stay updated with the latest Covid-19 research? Sign up to our newsletter >>

Curated by

Endre Szvetnik

Endre Szvetnik is Senior Editor at Sparrho. Endre works with Sparrho Heroes to curate, translate and disseminate scientific research to the wider public.

Share this digest