A UK study reports that the lasting impact of a severe Covid-19 infection on the brain in areas such as memory, attention or problem solving may be equivalent to 20 years of ageing. The new research, led by a team of scientists from the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London, suggests that cognitive impairment as a result of severe Covid-19 is similar to that sustained between 50 and 70 years of age and is the equivalent of losing 10 IQ points.
Professor David Menon, from the Division of Anaesthesia at the University of Cambridge, and 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.” The research was published in the journal eClinicalMedicine. It indicates the effects are still detectable more than six months after acute illness and that any recovery is very gradual.
Professor Adam Hampshire, from the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, 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 researchers reveal this is the first time that such rigorous assessment and comparison has been carried out concerning the after-effects of severe Covid-19. There have been growing reports 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.
“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 some of these individuals may never fully recover,” noted Professor Menon.