If you’ve been infected with COVID-19 and experience a loss of smell or taste, you’re not alone; it’s a common symptom associated with the virus. However, for some, the symptom lasts long after they test negative. In this post, we review one study that shows how COVID-19 affects the brain.
The study was published in the journal Nature in March 2022. Researchers uncovered subtle changes in the brains of people who had been infected with COVID-19 compared to controls.
Researchers examined data within a large database called UK Biobank, which contains medical information from people in the United Kingdom. Among this data were brain scans.
The researchers looked at brain scans from 785 people who had undergone imaging before and after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including from 401 people who had come down with the virus between the two scans and from 384 people who had never been diagnosed with COVID-19. The average duration between a diagnosis of COVID-19 and the second brain scan was 141 days.
Software programs were used to analyze the imaging data and extract quantifiable features that measure a specific structure or function of the brain, known as image-derived phenotypes (IDPs).
After analyzing the brain scans, the researchers found a greater reduction in gray matter volume and a greater increase in tissue damage markers in brain region associated with the olfactory systems in people who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 compared to controls. There was also a greater loss of gray matter across the entire brain and an increase in cerebrospinal fluid volume in those who had been infected.
In other words, there were observable changes in the parts of the brain that help you smell as well as across the entire brain in those who had had a mild to moderate case of COVID-19.
According to Dr. Maxime Taquet, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, “These findings might help explain why some people experience brain symptoms long after the acute infection… The causes of these brain changes, whether they can be prevented or even reverted, as well as whether similar changes are observed in hospitalized patients, in children and younger adults, and in minority ethnic groups, remain to be determined.”
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