The novel coronavirus may be responsible for causing some patients’ brains to age prematurely, which can be seen in their cognitive decline, according to a preliminary study out of the United Kingdom.
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, examined data from more than 84,000 individuals who said they had recovered from a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus infection. They also completed a large questionnaire and other tests that gauged their cognitive skills.
Their results were compared to those of healthy participants, who acted as the control group.
The research team, which was led by Imperial College London’s Dr. Adam Hampshire, discovered that those who had recovered from a coronavirus infection showcased significant cognitive deficits when accounting for age, gender, education level, income, racial and ethnic group, and pre-existing medical disorders.
In particular, for the participants who needed to be placed on a ventilator, the researchers found that cognitive performance declined by roughly ten years.
“(Cognitive deficits) were of substantial effect size for people who had been hospitalized, but also for mild but biologically confirmed cases who reported no breathing difficulty,” the study’s authors wrote. “Finer grained analyses of performance support the hypothesis that COVID-19 has a multi-system impact on human cognition.”
The researchers added: “These results should act as a clarion call for more detailed research investigating the basis of cognitive deficits in people who have survived SARS-COV-2 infection.”
However, some experts who were not involved in the study said the findings should be viewed with much caution.
“Overall (this is) an intriguing but inconclusive piece of research into the effect of COVID on the brain,” Derek Hill, a professor of medical imaging science at University College London, said in a statement, per Reuters.
“As researchers seek to better understand the long-term impact of COVID, it will be important to further investigate the extent to which cognition is impacted in the weeks and months after the infection, and whether permanent damage to brain function results in some people.”
He added that the study didn’t do enough in exploring how coronavirus affects the brain biologically, such as via scans.
“It is well known that cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s disease is associated with shrinkage of the brain as determined by MRI scans,” Hill said.
The results of the study are considered to be limited because only 361 of the 84,000 participants had tested positive for the virus. The research team is still recruiting people for the ongoing study.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.