Severe COVID-19 can damage brain like 20 years of aging - study

The damage from COVID-19 can result in cognitive impairment sustained by those between 50-70 years of age and is the equivalent of essentially losing 10 IQ points, a new study shows.

 The brain (illustrative). (photo credit: PIXABAY)
The brain (illustrative).
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Severe cases of COVID-19 can cause long-lasting damage to the human body, with the impact on the brain causing such severe impact that it could be equivalent to 20 years of aging, a new study has found.

A wide variety of impairments

These findings were published in the peer-reviewed academic journal eClinical Medicine by researchers from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London.

COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is known to have long-lasting effects on the body. In particular, this often manifests in a set of symptoms known as long-COVID, which can last for a long time and have manifested in a variety of different symptoms. 

But many among them have specifically pointed to a wide variety of cognitive and functional impairments, such as problems with planning, decision-making and flexibility, shorter attention spans, and sometimes even long-term memory loss. There is also evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, sleep disturbances and brain fog.

But this new research seems to suggest the damage is worse than previously thought. 

 SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY) SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 (illustrative). (credit: PIXABAY)

How many IQ points did we lose? 

According to these findings, based on the first-ever rigorous assessments and comparisons of severe COVID-19 after-effects, the damage results in cognitive impairment sustained by those between 50-70 years of age and is the equivalent of essentially losing 10 IQ points.

Not only that, but any recovery is, at best, gradual.

This research was done by analyzing patients in the UK and having them test themselves using the Cognitron platform to measure the efficiency of their mental faculties.

Overall, the subjects had slower response times and were less accurate overall. Particularly bad scoring came on tasks related to finding words as well as processing speeds. 

“Cognitive impairment is common to a wide range of neurological disorders, including dementia, and even routine aging, but the patterns we saw — the cognitive 'fingerprint' of COVID-19 — was distinct from all of these,” senior author Prof. David Menon of the University of Cambridge said in a statement.

Overall, these were seen most in those who had severe COVID-19. 

The need for fuller answers

Regarding the latter, the answer seems to be yes, but it is very gradual and there are likely a number of factors that may have influenced it, such as illness severity.

"It is very possible that some of these individuals will never fully recover," Menon said.

Regarding the former, a number of factors are likely at play, such as bleeding, low oxygen or blood flow to the brain, clotting and most importantly, the body's own immune system.

Overall, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered about COVID-19 and the effects this disease can have in the long term.

One study has indicated that around 30% of COVID-19 patients suffer from long-COVID, answering these questions could be vital in helping humanity emerge from the shadow of this pandemic.