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In-Depth: Researchers examine COVID's long-term effects on the brain

Patients report symptoms months after recovery
Posted at 11:36 AM, Nov 12, 2020

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Doctors at UC San Diego are beginning to understand the long-term impacts that COVID-19 has on the brain.

"I think that people should be just as afraid now as they should have been at the start of the epidemic," says Dr. Navaz Karanjia, the Director of Neuro-Critical care at UC San Diego.

Dr. Karanjia says she sees COVID patients in the ICU with brain-related issues ranging from hemorrhages and strokes to confusion and delirium. Other patients report a phenomenon called "Brain Fog," where they feel confused or slow to process the world around them.

"This is a very real phenomenon that is resulting from the fact that COVID has a much more widespread effect on the body than many other viruses do," she says.

Studies show as many as 30% of all COVID-19 patients report some kind of brain related problem. That number climbs to 70-80% for patients who land in the ICU. And 30% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients report neurological problems, including concentration and memory issues that last as long as three months after the infection ends.

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Dr. Jennifer Graves is the Director of Neuroimmunology Research at UC San Diego. She's leading a 10-year study of Coronavirus patients to find out why the disease has such a drastic impact on the brain.

Already the doctors at UC San Diego have found a handful of reasons.

"We know this family of coronaviruses, the beta family of coronaviruses, has the potential to be neurotropic, and to invade neural cells," says Dr. Graves.

She says the disease could infect cerebral spinal fluid or trigger an immune response that leads to brain problems.

Dr. Karanjia says she sees inflammation of blood vessel lining that could lead to some of the more severe reactions like hemorrhages, strokes, or comas.

And the damage Coronavirus does to other organs, like the lungs and heart, could lead to lower blood flow to the brain.

"We're trying to tease apart these possibilities and look at what are the relative contribution of these mechanisms," Dr. Graves says of her research.

In addition to the physical damage, Coronavirus can also lead to mental issues like PTSD or depression.

"We know the overall stress, the systemic stress, the psychiatric stress of going through this disease, or possibly being admitted to an ICU with this disease, or going through an entire outbreak in your family with this disease can lead to some neuropsychiatric symptoms as well," says Dr. Graves.

Fortunately, doctors are starting to find ways to help with the problems, from medication to therapy.

"It's so important for people to know that if they experience symptoms, there is help out there, and they need just to seek it out," says Dr.Karanjia.

Patients can also become part of the study by contacting UC San Diego Health.