The SARS-CoV-2 virus brought with it a flurry of panic in the early days of the pandemic. As South Africa and the world have moved through a first wave, a resurgence and a second wave, epidemiologists have churned out as much information about the virus to help keep the panic at bay. We now know about a myriad of after-effects of COVID-19, the list of common and uncommon symptoms, how COVID can affect your skin and even COVID toes.

Little is known though on how COVID-19 can affect the brain, particularly its impact on memory loss. Compelling research and evidence suggest that COVID-19 can impact a patient’s brain health specifically in relation to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other irreversible brain disorders either directly or indirectly. It’s important to note that the virus doesn’t necessarily cause damage to the body. Rather damage may be caused by how the body and brain respond to combatting the virus.

A global study to find answers

One of the most common symptoms experienced in COVID-19 patients was a loss of smell or taste or both, without being congested. According to NPR, this symptom was a cause for concern for neurologists at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. “We were afraid that SARS CoV-2 was going to invade the brain,” said Dr. Gabriel de Erausquin, an investigator at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at the university.

de Erausquin explained to the Washington Post that patients over the age of 60 who have survived COVID-19 have been left with short-term memory problems and have experienced difficulty in completing daily tasks like cooking a meal. Damage to the brain or “encephalopathy” has been documented in patients across the globe who were hospitalised for COVID-19.

Dr Julie Helms, from Strasbourg University Hospital in northeast France, published a small study in the New England Journal of Medicine documenting the neurological symptoms in their Covid-19 patients, ranging from cognitive difficulties to confusion.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Helms said: “They were extremely agitated, and many had neurological problems – mainly confusion and delirium. We are used to having some patients in the ICU who are agitated and require sedation, but this was completely abnormal. It has been very scary, especially because many of the people we treated were very young – many in their 30s and 40s, even an 18-year-old.”

Ranging from confusion and delirium to seizures and psychosis, a report in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, which de Erausquin was involved in, delves into how severe COVID-19 may play a role in increasing an individual’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Avindra Nath of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has studied brain tissue from patients who have died from COVID-19. He and his team found evidence of inflammation and damage across numerous patients.

He explained that blood vessels in the brain were leaking in different sections, resembling the same injury like that of a series of tiny strokes. This, he believes, may be why people experience different brain-related symptoms.

Leaky blood cells linked to these symptoms can leave a person’s brain more vulnerable to other damages. Heather Snyder, Vice President of medical and scientific operations at the Alzheimer’s Association said: “We know that those are important in Alzheimer’s disease and we’re seeing them play a key role here in COVID-19 and what that may mean in later life, we need to be asking that question now.” Thus leading to the formation of the Alzheimer’s Association International Cohort Study of Chronic Neurological Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2.

The international study will investigate the correlation of COVID-19 and the decline in brain functioning, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. “The Alzheimer’s Association and representatives from more than 30 countries—with technical guidance from the World Health Organization—have formed an international consortium to study the short‐and long‐term consequences of SARS‐CoV‐2 on the CNS—including the underlying biology that may contribute to AD and other dementias. This consortium will link teams from around the world covering more than 22 million COVID‐19 cases to enrol two groups of individuals including people with the disease, to be evaluated for follow‐up evaluations at 6, 9, and 18 months, and people who are already enrolled in existing international research studies to add additional measures and markers of their underlying biology,” said the study’s official website. “There might be certain types of treatment that might have better outcomes not just for covid, but also for your brain,” said Snyder to the Washington Post.