Mild COVID cases still lead to attention and memory issues - study

In the study, participants who had tested positive for COVID-19 previously but did not report other traditional long COVID symptoms were asked to complete exercises to test their memory.

 People brace against the cold while waiting for COVID-19 test to be administered (photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID 'DEE' DELGADO)
People brace against the cold while waiting for COVID-19 test to be administered
(photo credit: REUTERS/DAVID 'DEE' DELGADO)

People with mild COVID-19 who do not suffer any other traditional "long COVID" symptoms can still exhibit deteriorated attention and memory six to nine months after infection, a study by Britain's Oxford University has found.

Cognitive issues impacting concentration levels, along with forgetfulness and fatigue, are features of long COVID - a condition that afflicts some after an initial bout of infection - but it has not been established how widespread attention span issues might be following COVID-19 infection.

In the study, 136 participants who had tested positive for COVID-19 previously but did not report other traditional long COVID symptoms were asked to complete exercises to test their memory and cognitive ability.

 Test tubes labelled ''COVID-19 Omicron variant test positive'' are seen in this illustration picture taken January 15, 2022.  (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION) Test tubes labelled ''COVID-19 Omicron variant test positive'' are seen in this illustration picture taken January 15, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/DADO RUVIC/ILLUSTRATION)

The researchers found that they were significantly worse at recalling personal experiences, known as episodic memory, up to six months after infection.

They also had a bigger decline in their ability to sustain attention over time than uninfected individuals up to nine months after infection.

"What is surprising is that although our COVID-19 survivors did not feel any more symptomatic at the time of testing, they showed degraded attention and memory," according to Dr. Sijia Zhao of Oxford's Department of Experimental Psychology.

"Our findings reveal that people can experience some chronic cognitive consequences for months."

The researchers said that episodic memory and attention span largely returned to normal after six and nine months, respectively. Participants also performed well in tests of other cognitive abilities, including working memory and planning.

Stephen Burgess of the MRC Biostatistics Unit at the University of Cambridge highlighted the small number of people involved in the study, adding that it was not randomized.

"However, despite this, differences between the COVID and non-COVID groups in terms of several specific measures of cognitive ability looked at in this study were striking," he said.

"Despite the limitations of non-randomized research, it seems unlikely that these results can be explained by systematic differences between the groups unrelated to COVID infection."