People continue to experience neurological problems six months after recovering from a COVID-19 infection, finds a recent study from the University of California San Diego. In fact, scientists say most coronavirus long-haulers battle brain-related issues.
The findings are part of a long-term study tracking the progression of neurological symptoms in people with long COVID. Not only do neurological symptoms persist, the researchers also found never-before-seen motor coordination and cognitive issues in long-haulers.
“It’s encouraging that most people were showing some improvement at six months, but that wasn’t the case for everyone,” says Dr. Jennifer S. Graves, associate professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine and neurologist at UC San Diego Health in a media release. “Some of these participants are high-level professionals who we’d expect to score above average on cognitive assessments, but months after having COVID-19, they’re still scoring abnormally.”
Between October 2020 to October 2021, the research team tracked the health of 56 people who developed neurological issues after a mild to moderate COVID-19 infection. None of the people had a history of neurological conditions before becoming sick from the virus. People first received a neurological exam, cognitive test, survey questions on symptoms, and the option for a brain scan.
In the first visit, 89% of people reported fatigue, and 80% said they felt constant headaches. Other neurological symptoms ranged from memory troubles, insomnia, and loss of concentration. About 80% of people said the neurological symptoms affected their quality of life.
After a 6-month follow-up, only one-third of people fully recovered from their neurological symptoms. The other two-thirds continued to show neurological symptoms, though the symptoms decreased in severity. For those that continued to have symptoms, the most common was memory impairment and lack of focus.
One surprising finding for the team was that 7% of people had a set of symptoms that to their knowledge have never observed in people with long COVID. The symptoms included cognitive deficits, tremors, and trouble keeping their balance. The authors labeled the symptoms as Tremor, Ataxia, and Cognitive deficit (PASC-TAC).
“These are folks who had no neurological problems before COVID-19, and now they have an incoordination of their body and possible incoordination of their thoughts,” comments Dr. Graves. “We didn’t expect to find this, so we want to get the word out in case other physicians see this too.”
There is still much work to be done to study how the virus penetrates the brain. Dr. Graves hypothesizes that inflammatory autoimmune responses in the brain caused by the infection is likely the reason behind these delayed neurological symptoms.
The study is projected to last for 10 years, with researchers following up with people every year. Other parts of the research will focus on how different COVID-19 variants and vaccines impact persistent neurological symptoms.
“To have people’s cognition and quality of life still impacted so long after infection is something we as a society need to be taking a serious look at,” says Dr. Graves. “We still need to know how common this is, what biological processes are causing this, and what ongoing health care these people will need. This work is an important first step to getting there.”
The study is published in the journal Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology.