COVID-19 brain fog: How the virus impacts the nervous system

More COVID-19 patients are reporting “brain fog” days, weeks and even months after a positive test. Adrian Ghobrial with why everyone who gets the virus should expect to lose brain tissue and why it’s cause for concern.

By Adrian Ghobrial and Lucas Casaletto

Most people are familiar with “long COVID,” but a symptom that many people experience well after testing positive for the virus is being labelled as “brain fog,” and we’re learning more about how COVID-19 can impact one of the essential organs in the body.

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist in Toronto, says that everybody that gets COVID-19 deals with some brain tissue loss. The question, he says, is how much.

“Imagine having a nasty concussion. Imagine having a really bad head injury. Do you want to suffer the equivalent of a really bad blow to the head? For most people, the answer is no.”

According to Harvard Medical School, brain fog is not a scientific term. Instead, people use the term brain fog to describe when they’re feeling sluggish or slow to react. Most deal with this from time to time, but what if your thinking didn’t return to normal?

That is the unfortunate reality for some, including Susie Goulding.

CityNews spoke with Goulding in early March as she struggled to form a sentence. Goulding had to pause to gather her thoughts repeatedly and couldn’t recall certain words.

Her perplexing prognosis is long COVID. She has now had the vicious virus twice and has had to change careers to a job in a less mentally-taxing work environment. CityNews spoke to Goulding again on Thursday. Unfortunately, her symptoms haven’t improved.

“I can’t multi-task like I used to. I am not back to my pre-COVID state of health,” Goulding said. “It’s really the neurological issues that are causing issues in my life now.”

The focus on COVID-19 from the beginning of the pandemic is how it affects our respiratory system. A recent neurology conference south of the border shared information from contemporary studies, shedding light on how COVID-19 interferes with our blood vessels and the link to the silent sickness that many are experiencing.

Dr. Kashif Pirzada, an ER doctor in Toronto, expanded on that. He says that COVID-19 causes the human body to develop inflammation in these blood vessels, turning into clots.

“These clots clog up the arteries that feed your brain cells. They [recent studies] found abnormalities in areas of the brain that deal with memory, which could explain why people have a hard time forming sentences,” Pirzada said. “Or even remembering things after COVID. There is a lot to go through here that we’re just discovering right now.”

What remains on the long list of unknowns is how repeated exposure to COVID-19 can affect someone’s brain or whether this could lead to other health complications down the road.

brain fog

Brain fog is not a medical or scientific term; it is used by individuals to describe how they feel when their thinking is sluggish, fuzzy, and not sharp. Photo courtesy: Milad Fakurian.

What to do if one experiences “brain fog” after COVID-19

Bluntly and rather disconcertingly, Pirzada says that if someone is dealing with significant brain fog, there isn’t much that can be done right now when it comes to improving brain fog.

“We can refer you to a specialist that will see you in the long term, but they won’t know what to do either,” Pirzada said.

Goulding says she’s frustrated that she’s considered someone that, theoretically, has recovered from the virus not once but twice.

“People look at me and say, ‘oh, you have recovered really well.’ If this is what you call recovery, it’s still not recovered back to my pre-COVID health,” she said.

Andrew E. Budson, a contributor to Harvard Health Publishing, says COVID long haulers might have lingering symptoms. These include fatigue, body aches, inability to exercise, headache, and difficulty sleeping.

“Some of these problems may be due to permanent damage to their lungs, heart, kidneys, or other organs,” Budson wrote.

“Damage to these organs — or even just the symptoms — can impair thinking and memory and cause brain fog. For example, how can you think clearly if you’re feeling fatigued and your body is aching? How can you concentrate if you were up half the night and awoke with a headache?”

Budson suggests seeing a family doctor right away if one experiences brain fog to share all the signs. This includes other neurologic symptoms — such as weakness, numbness, tingling, loss of smell or taste — and problems such as shortness of breath, palpitations, and abnormal urine or stool.

Harvard Medical School cites some activities one can do to help brain fog-like symptoms. If one can, this includes performing aerobic exercise, avoiding alcohol and drugs, sleeping well, and eating what Budson calls a “Mediterranean-style diet.” This consists mainly of olive oil, fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans, and whole grains — foods that are proven to improve thinking, memory and brain health.

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