Severe COVID found to age brain by 20 years

The long-lasting effects of severe COVID deliver significant cognitive impairments similar to those sustained between 50 and 70 years of age and is the equivalent to losing 10 IQ points. A new study, led by a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, suggests the effects are still detectable more than six months after acute illness and that any recovery is at best gradual.

According to the researchers, this is the first time that such rigorous assessment and comparison has been carried out in relation to the after-effects of severe COVID-19.

Professor Adam Hampshire from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, and first author of the study, said: “Tens of thousands of people have been through intensive care with COVID-19 in England alone and many more will have been very sick, but not admitted to hospital. This means there are a large number of people out there still experiencing problems with cognition many months later. We urgently need to look at what can be done to help these people.”

The team said there is growing evidence that COVID-19 can cause lasting cognitive and mental health problems, with recovered patients reporting symptoms including fatigue, ‘brain fog’, problems recalling words, sleep disturbances, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) months after infection.

In the UK, a study found that around one in seven individuals surveyed reported having symptoms that included cognitive difficulties 12 weeks after a positive COVID-19 test.

“While even mild cases can lead to persistent cognitive symptoms, between a third and three-quarters of hospitalised patients report still suffering cognitive symptoms three to six months later,” the study said.

Researchers analysed data from 46 people who received in-hospital care (on the ward or intensive care unit) for COVID-19, 16 of whom were put on mechanical ventilation during their stay in hospital.

All of the patients were admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge between March and July 2020 and were recruited via the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource.

Patients took cognitive tests an average of six months after their illness using the Cognitron platform, which measures different aspects of mental faculties such as memory, attention and reasoning. Scales measuring anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were also assessed. Their data were compared against matched controls.

Analysis of the data revealed COVID-19 survivors were less accurate and had slower response times than the matched control population. These deficits were still detectable when the patients were following up six months later.

The effects were strongest for those who required mechanical ventilation. By comparing the patients to 66,008 members of the general public, the researchers estimate that the magnitude of cognitive loss is similar on average to that sustained with 20 years ageing, between 50 and 70 years of age, and that this is equivalent to losing 10 IQ points.

Survivors scored particularly poorly on tasks such as verbal analogical reasoning, a finding that supports the commonly-reported problem of difficulty finding words. They also showed slower processing speeds, which aligns with previous observations post COVID-19 of decreased brain glucose consumption within the frontoparietal network of the brain, responsible for attention, complex problem-solving and working memory, among other functions.

Professor David Menon from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge, the study’s senior author, said: “Cognitive impairment is common to a wide range of neurological disorders, including dementia, and even routine ageing, but the patterns we saw – the cognitive ‘fingerprint’ of COVID-19 – was distinct from all of these.”

“While it is now well established that people who have recovered from severe COVID-19 illness can have a broad spectrum of symptoms of poor mental health – depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, low motivation, fatigue, low mood, and disturbed sleep – the team found that acute illness severity was better at predicting the cognitive deficits,” added the study. “The patients’ scores and reaction times began to improve over time, but the researchers say that any recovery in cognitive faculties was at best gradual and likely to be influenced by a number of factors including illness severity and its neurological or psychological impacts.”

Professor Menon added: “We followed some patients up as late as ten months after their acute infection, so were able to see a very slow improvement. While this was not statistically significant, it is at least heading in the right direction, but it is very possible that some of these individuals will never fully recover.”

While the study looked at hospitalised cases, the team say that even those patients not sick enough to be admitted may also have tell-tale signs of mild impairment.

Professor Paul Harrison, professor of psychiatry, University of Oxford, said the results were such that they demanded further investigation.

“This study uses an innovative design to explore cognitive deficits (problems with memory and attention) in people who had COVID-19 badly enough to require intensive care,” he added.  “It shows that these deficits can be substantial and persist more than six months after the acute illness.  The results are convincing and important and raise further questions.  For example, what happens following less severe infection?  How long do the deficits last?  What causes them and, critically, how can they be treated or prevented?”

The effects were strongest for those who required mechanical ventilation. By comparing the patients to 66,008 members of the general public, the researchers estimate that the magnitude of cognitive loss is similar on average to that sustained with 20 years ageing, between 50 and 70 years of age, and that this is equivalent to losing 10 IQ points.

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