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Long Covid causes ‘distinct’ changes in brain structure

Long Covid victim discusses daily impact of virus

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The long-term effects of COVID-19 are still yet to be fully understood. While many people recover from the infection within a few weeks, others can be left with debilitating symptoms for months and even years later. And now research has shown the disease could go as far as to alter the structure of your brain.

A new study, published in The Lancet, revealed that patients suffering from long Covid fatigue also showed a reduction in the size of various parts of the brain via MRI scans.

Researchers, from the Free University of Berlin, concluded that this was linked with the common symptom of fatigue.

As part of the study, 50 patients from post-Covid outpatient clinics were recruited between April and December 2021.

Participants, who ranged from 18 to 69 years of age, underwent MRI, neuropsychiatric, and cognitive testing.

Of the 50 subjects, 47 were experiencing moderate or severe fatigue seven months after the initial infection.

As a clinical control group, the team included 47 matched multiple sclerosis patients with fatigue.

Tests revealed changes in multiple parts of the brain including the thalamus, putamen and pallidum.

The study said: “Diffusion markers correlated with fatigue severity, such as physical fatigue, fatigue-related impairment in everyday life and daytime sleepiness.

“Moreover, we observed shape deformations and decreased volumes of the left thalamus, putamen, and pallidum.”

It explained: “Our study shows that post-COVID fatigue is associated with distinct structural brain alterations in subcortical hubs that are detectable using MRI.

“Specifically, we identified reduced volumes and aberrant diffusion markers of the thalamus and basal ganglia that correlated with fatigue severity and impairment in daily activities, daytime sleepiness, and short-term memory problems.

“Importantly, this pattern of pathological changes emerged even though this cohort is relatively young, most patients were not hospitalised during their acute infection, and patients were in overall good health before COVID-19.

“Our novel finding – that post-Covid fatigue is associated with structural brain damage – highlights the importance of consequent therapeutic management of this debilitating postinfectious syndrome.”

Among the study cohort, the most common subjective complaints of patients with post-Covid fatigue were exhaustion (83 percent), difficulty concentrating (83 percent), and forgetfulness (62 percent).

“In conclusion, our analyses show that a distinct pattern of thalamic and basal ganglia changes is associated with post-Covid fatigue,” the study summarised.

“Imaging alterations include volume reductions, surface deformations, and aberrant diffusion markers that correlate with the severity and everyday impact of fatigue symptoms.

“Moreover, we show that post-Covid fatigue needs to be managed in a wider clinical array that also considers sleep quality, mood alterations, and cognitive impairment.

“Future research will determine whether these fatigue symptoms are transient or persistent.

“The identification of distinct subcortical brain correlates provides a foundation for further research on the pathomechanisms of post-Covid fatigue.”

Other established symptoms of long Covid include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of smell
  • Muscle aches
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dizziness
  • Pins and needles
  • Joint pain
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Tinnitus, earaches
  • Feeling sick, diarrhoea, stomach aches, loss of appetite
  • A high temperature, cough, headaches, sore throat, changes to sense of smell or taste
  • Rashes.

If you think you have long Covid you should see your GP.

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