We have learned a lot, but still have much to learn about COVID-19.
Researchers have seen a link between COVID-19 and chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis) as well as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which are long-term conditions affecting the brain. These likely ensue due to the inflammatory effects of the immune response as the body tries to fight off the disease. In addition, COVID patients have been found to experience loss of smell, have delirium, and have an increased risk for strokes. These are all neurological effects of the disease.
An investigation being conducted by the University of Michigan is striving to uncover whether there will be long-term neurological consequences of COVID-19 such as dementia, memory deficits, or cognitive decline.
The Immune System
Many of the terrible symptoms we experience when we’re sick aren’t due to the sickness itself, but from our body fighting it. Our immune system does everything in its power to get us healthy again. But, we now know that the immune system has more than just one role. Neuroimmune cells also play a role in memory formation. This is why immune responses to an illness can have lasting effects on memory.
Essentially, the inflammatory signals set off by the body change how the immune cells communicate with the brain’s neurons. Some immune cells alter or destroy neural connections vital for storing memory.
Even though the neuroimmune cells are only activated during illness, battling an illness can still have lasting effects on the body. In the case of COVID-19, there is potential for changes in attention, cognition, and memory, to be long-lasting.
It is not just COVID-19 that can have this kind of effect. Studies have shown that stress and mild inflammation can have similar effects on memory as viral or bacterial infections. Other links to illness and neurological health include bypass surgery and sepsis. In fact, it is studies of conditions like these that make researchers so inquisitive about the link between COVID-19 and memory. It is a constant learning process and the more understanding we achieve, the more hope there is for the future.
While we are still in a state of unknowns, the best thing we can do is try to decrease risk. We can do that through preventing the disease and by effectively treating it.
An effective treatment for COVID-19 would mean decreased activity in the immune system because the medication would help the body fight back. Many treatments being investigated currently work by suppressing the immune system. This suppression may simultaneously reduce the impact of inflammation in the brain.
All being said, the most important take-away is that we cannot stop studying COVID-19 after we find a vaccine or a treatment. We need to continue to monitor individuals who have contracted the disease to see how the illness has affected them over time. It is the only way we will truly be able to know the long-term cognitive effects of the coronavirus. Equipped with this knowledge, we will be able to develop new treatments and prevention strategies for these effects.
You can read more about the link between COVID-19 and memory here.