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COVID-19 Might Shrink Parts of the Brain

As if we needed another reason to be vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, our primary care doctors in Delray Beach have learned of one more possible after effect of infection with the virus: Recent research has hinted that infection with COVID-19 might lead to long-term loss of brain tissue.

Your brain on COVID-19

For the past 18 months, scientists have been struggling to connect COVID-19 leading to an array of neurological symptoms.

Even some of those diagnosed with mild cases of the virus have reported lingering brain-related symptoms. These symptoms include anxiety, depression, confusion, dizziness, sleep disorders, headaches, and even hallucinations, and delirium.

Of course, one of the hallmarks of COVID-19 infection is the now-classic loss of taste and smell. (By the way, the delta variant’s warning symptoms differ slightly from earlier variants of the virus. There is not as much loss of these two senses and not as much coughing; instead, early signs may include a headache, sore throat, sneezing, or sniffles.)

And the numbers of those affected by lingering neurological symptoms may be larger than previously suspected. An April study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry found that one-third of 236,000 COVID-19 survivors experienced a psychiatric or neurological issue in the six months following their infection.

Unlocking the puzzle?

Until now, researchers had focused on the inflammation and artery leakage often found in the brain as a possible explanation.

But last month, Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drew attention to a new study from the University of Oxford. This study may provide another clue.

In a June tweet, he wrote, “A well-done study evaluating potential nervous system effects of COVID-19 based on brain scans finds ‘significant, deleterious impact’ on certain parts of the brain—perhaps pointing to a microvascular effect of [the] virus on certain regions of the nervous system?”

The study

He was referring to a study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and the University of Oxford and Imperial College in the U.K. Researchers examined 394 people who received brain scans for other reasons prior to being infected with COVID-19. Then researchers scanned their brains again after participants were infected with the coronavirus.

The researchers then compared those results with 388 people who did not contract COVID-19 but were similar in age, sex, and ethnicity. Brain scans occurred twice at about the same time intervals as well.

Their findings showed “significant effects of COVID-19 in the brain.”

These included a loss of brain tissue known as “gray matter.”

The tissue weakens in regions of the brain that affect a person’s taste and smell. The researchers also found a similar pattern of brain loss in memory-related regions of the brain.

The study’s authors wrote that they couldn’t conclusively prove that COVID-19 shrinks portions of the brain in some people. They said, however, their research should help determine which of the brain-related symptoms in survivors were caused by the disease.

Lingering issues with COVID-19

Speaking on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about the importance of the vaccinations, Gottlieb said of the study, “It’s very concerning because it does suggest that the virus could be having a direct effect on certain portions of the brain.

“I think what it suggests is that the balance of the information that we’re accruing does indicate that COVID-19 is a disease that could create persistent symptoms,” he added.

Speaking to CNBC’s Shepard Smith, he said, “In short, the study suggests that there could be some long-term loss of brain tissue from COVID-19, and that would have long-term consequences. You could compensate for that over time, so the symptoms of that may go away, but you’re never going to regain the tissue if, in fact, it’s being destroyed as a result of the virus. So this isn’t a benign disease. It’s something you want to avoid. And the bottom line is, we have the tools to avoid it through vaccination.”

We’d like to stress again, please receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Remember that children under age 12 as well as people who are immunocompromised are at risk of catching COVID-19.

In addition, the more people who remain unvaccinated, the more opportunities the coronavirus has to keep evolving into even more transmissible and dangerous forms. If this happens, there’s a chance the vaccines may become less effective. That could mean a repeat of last summer’s soaring case rate and deaths.

If you have questions or concerns about the vaccine, don’t hesitate to call us.

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