Preliminary research finds that even mild cases of COVID-19 leave a mark on the brain – but it’s not yet clear how long it lasts

by | Sep 24, 2021 | Featured, Science & News

By Jessica Bernard, Associate Professor, Texas A&M University

With more than 18 months of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, researchers have been steadily gathering new and important insights into the effects of COVID-19 on the body and brain. These findings are raising concerns about the long-term impacts that the coronavirus might have on biological processes such as aging.

As a cognitive neuroscientistmy past research has focused on understanding how normal brain changes related to aging affect people’s ability to think and move – particularly in middle age and beyond. But as more evidence came in showing that COVID-19 could affect the body and brain for months or longer following infection, my research team became interested in exploring how it might also impact the natural process of aging.

Jessica Bernard, Associate Professor, Texas A&M UniversityFri, September 24, 2021, 8:37 AM·6 min read

<span class="caption">The new findings, although preliminary, are raising concerns about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19.</span> <span class="attribution"><a class=
The new findings, although preliminary, are raising concerns about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19. Yuichiro Chino via Getty Images

With more than 18 months of the pandemic in the rearview mirror, researchers have been steadily gathering new and important insights into the effects of COVID-19 on the body and brain. These findings are raising concerns about the long-term impacts that the coronavirus might have on biological processes such as aging.

As a cognitive neuroscientistmy past research has focused on understanding how normal brain changes related to aging affect people’s ability to think and move – particularly in middle age and beyond. But as more evidence came in showing that COVID-19 could affect the body and brain for months or longer following infection, my research team became interested in exploring how it might also impact the natural process of aging.

Peering in at the brain’s response to COVID-19

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In August 2021, a preliminary but large-scale study investigating brain changes in people who had experienced COVID-19 drew a great deal of attention within the neuroscience community.

In that study, researchers relied on an existing database called the UK Biobank, which contains brain imaging data from over 45,000 people in the U.K. going back to 2014. This means – crucially – that there was baseline data and brain imaging of all of those people from before the pandemic.

The research team analyzed the brain imaging data and then brought back those who had been diagnosed with COVID-19 for additional brain scans. They compared people who had experienced COVID-19 to participants who had not, carefully matching the groups based on age, sex, baseline test date and study location, as well as common risk factors for disease, such as health variables and socioeconomic status.

The team found marked differences in gray matter – which is made up of the cell bodies of neurons that process information in the brain – between those who had been infected with COVID-19 and those who had not. Specifically, the thickness of the gray matter tissue in brain regions known as the frontal and temporal lobes was reduced in the COVID-19 group, differing from the typical patterns seen in the group that hadn’t experienced COVID-19.

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