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COVID-19 Survivors Literally Lose Gray Matter and Other Brain Tissue

Scientists saw significant effects of COVID on the human brain.

COVID-19 Survivors Literally Lose Gray Matter and Other Brain Tissue
An MRI scan of a brain. mr.suphachai praserdumrongchai / iStock

When an unexpected radical virus sweeps the world, we have to prepare for unforeseen consequences.

And, sadly, it seems COVID-19 survivors might lose some of their brain's cerebral matter as a long-term effect of the virus, according to a recent study shared on a preprint server.

This study has yet to receive peer review, so there is no reason to panic, but this could be the first of several new studies attesting to the potential the COVID-19 coronavirus has for permanent damage to human physiology.

Surviving COVID-19 infection could lead to symptoms of dementia

Scientists have found a strong correlation between people who contracted and survived COVID-19, and brain-related pathologies. This came as a result of a long-term experiment that included 782 volunteers. Initially, the researchers performed brain scans on all volunteers, and invited 394 COVID-19 survivors to undergo follow-up scans, in addition to 388 volunteers who did not contract the illness. Of those who survived coronavirus, the researchers noticed substantial effects of the virus on the cerebral matter, with a reduction in gray matter regions of their brains.

"Our findings thus consistently relate to loss of gray matter in limbic cortical areas directly linked to the primary olfactory and gustatory system," which are the regions of the brain responsible for our sense of smell and taste, wrote the authors in the preprint study. Gray matter of our brains is crucial to the nervous system, operating the myriad functions of the brain. This part of the brain allows us to determine memory, emotions, and movement, which means any abnormality could alter brain cells and reduce communication skills.

The study also found that when humans lose gray matter in areas of the brain linked with memory, it could "increase the risk of these patients of developing dementia in the longer term," wrote the authors. While several breakthrough studies have recently surfaced about dementia and Alzheimer's treatment, including a new drug to treat symptoms of dementia, the drug is still controversial among experts, and other studies mostly happened in experiments with mice, and so are perhaps too preliminary to offer realistic hope of treating existing and future victims of such neurological degeneration.

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Much remains unknown about the long-term effects of COVID-19 infection

And this finding, which again is still in need of peer review, comes on the heels of another study published in the journal Lancet Psychiatry in 2020, which suggested COVID-19 infections could leave significant damage in the brain, leading to long-term complications like dementia, or stroke-like issues. But like the recent one, the authors of the 2020 study emphasized a need for additional data and review before we have a crystal-clear picture of how a serious COVID-19 case ultimately affects brain health. Most volunteers in the recent study who had survived COVID-19 suffered mild-to-moderate symptoms, or none at all. This was a unique contribution of the study, since many earlier studies honed in on only severe cases of the illness. "There is a fundamental need for more information on the cerebral effects of the disease even in its mildest form," read the preprint study.

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As you might expect, there were no changes in brain matter observed in study participants who weren't infected by COVID-19 coronavirus. And, once more, the recent findings are in dire need of follow-up research, to investigate the longer-term effects of COVID-19 cases on survivors' capacity to remember emotion-provoking events. For example, it remains unconfirmed whether loss of gray matter is a consequence of the virus reaching the brain, or from some other effect of contracting the coronavirus. This news may be frightening, but there are far too many unanswered questions to merit panic.

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