Brain fog is one of the most common symptoms experienced by COVID-19 and long COVID sufferers. Triggering confusion, headaches, dizziness, and memory recall problems, these symptoms bear a frightening similarity to thoses experienced in the early stages of dementia, but does this mean there is a relationship between the two?
A new study from La Trobe University’s Institute for Molecular Science has found the neurological symptoms of long-COVID like brain fog are caused by amyloid clumps (toxic clumps of protein) in the brain, which is similar to what happens in the brains of those with dementia.
Dr Nick Reynolds from La Trobe University’s Institute for Molecular Science said the research reveals there are striking similarities between the early stages of neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease) and the lasting effects of COVID-19.
A person is usually considered to have long COVID if their symptoms persist for longer than four weeks after their initial infection. Symptoms of long COVID can include memory loss, sensory confusion, severe headaches, and even stroke in up to 30% of cases. Long COVID can persist for months and for some, even up to a year after they were infected.
If you’ve had COVID-19 and are experiencing cognitive symptoms like the above, there’s no reason to panic just yet. The researchers say the relationship is still unclear and doesn’t necessarily mean there will be lasting damage or that the changes observed affect thinking, memory or other brain functions. In other words, the presence of the amyloid clumps in the brains of long COVID sufferers doesn’t necessarily mean that it is the cause of their reported neurological symptoms.
While there is evidence that the virus can enter the brain of infected people, the precise mechanisms causing these neurological symptoms still require further exploration.
If future studies do confirm that the amyloid clumps observed in their research are in fact contributing towards long COVID, then it may be possible to treat these symptoms with drugs developed to combat conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
“If brain fog is being caused by these amyloid clumps, then there is 30 years of drug development into neurodegenerative disease, which can now be relooked at in the context of COVID-19,” Dr Reynolds said.
“Drugs which didn’t quite have a strong enough efficacy to work against very serious and irreversible diseases like Alzheimer’s might have a much better success with brain fog-type symptoms.”
But studying the brain can pose ethical challenges.
“You’re never going to want to, for instance, biopsy somebody’s brain because they have a headache,” Dr Reynolds said. “Brain scanning capabilities like PET scans and MRI scans are getting better all the time, but it’s still very challenging to image these very small clumps of proteins.”