Scientists from around the world will meet at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference beginning next Monday in Denver to share their findings on how COVID-19 affects the brain.
According to NPR, patients who have been infected with the virus often develop long-term cognitive problems and the experts want to investigate whether COVID-19 can increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Brain scans have revealed that infections can cause changes that resemble those seen in Alzheimer’s patients. Experts have also noted that the same genes that increase the risk for severe COVID-19 also boost the risk of developing Alzheimer’s.
Dr. Gabriel de Erausquin, who is one of a team of researchers at UT Health San Antonio and a distinguished professor of neurology, says that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is more common in patients who have had severe COVID-19. “It’s downright scary,” he said.
And there are more occurrences of Alzheimer’s in COVID-19 infected individuals who lost their sense of smell, noted de Erausquin.
“Persistent lack of smell, it’s associated with brain changes not just in the olfactory bulb but those places that are connected one way or another to the smell sense,” he said, according to NPR, adding that those places include areas of the brain connected with memory, thinking, planning, and mood.
Research has indicated that COVID-19 affects the brain differently in different age groups. For those in their 30’s, the disease seems to exacerbate anxiety and depression. For older people, forgetfulness is the number one manifestation.
“These folks tend to forget where they placed things, they tend to forget names, they tend to forget phone numbers,” says de Erausquin. “They have trouble with language; they begin forgetting words.”
A recent study from the U.K. confirmed that COVID-19 could cause “significant, deleterious impact” on certain parts of the brain. Researchers examined brain imaging before and after people contracted COVID-19 and searched specifically for the virus’ effect on the nervous system.
The study, published in the pre-print server MedRxiv, which has not been peer-reviewed, revealed significant losses of grey matter in the brains of study participants who had taken part in previous brain research at UK Biobank and were invited back after having been infected with COVID-19. The loss of brain tissue was pinpointed primarily around the areas responsible for taste and smell, according to Life Sciences.
Brain scans revealed eight distinct differences in the left hemisphere of the COVID-19 group compared to the control group, the areas known to govern the sense of smell and taste.
The scientists also found profound losses of grey matter in the area of the brain affecting memory in individuals who were hospitalized with severe COVID. Many of the results observed were strikingly similar to the scans of people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, leading the researchers to speculate whether long-term damage from COVID-19 could eventually lead to these disorders.
Other researchers at UT Health San Antonio will also present more study findings on the likelihood that COVID-19 could increase the risk of Alzheimer’s at the upcoming conference. Dr. Sudha Seshadri, the founding director of the Glen Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s & Neurodegenerative Diseases, says this possible link is alarming.
“Even if the effect is small, it’s something we’re going to have to factor in because the population is quite large,” she said, according to NPR.
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