The covid-19 pandemic has also left markings on the brain; both in people who have passed the disease and in those who have so far achieved dodge contagion. According to several studies, the coronavirus penetrates the nervous system and can cause multiple neurological effects in affected patients. But beyond the effects of the infection itself, countless studies warn of the negative impact that two years of health crisis have had. in the state of mind of the population. “If we talk about effects of covid-19 on the brainPerhaps the most important thing is to understand that the damage goes far beyond what the virus itself can cause. We are facing a very complex phenomenon”, explains, with a didactic spirit, the neuroscientist Alvaro Pascual-Leonedirector of the Barcelona Brain Health Initiative (BBHI) and professor at Harvard University.
The great challenge to understand the impact of covid-19 in the human brain, argues Pascual-Leone, is to distinguish the problems caused by the virus from those caused by the context. “It’s not the same to talk about damage caused by infection what of the alterations generated due to a stressful situation”, clarifies the neuroscientist in an interview with EL PERIÓDICO. “There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has meant a neurobiological stressor important for the vast majority of the population, but the final impact of this phenomenon depends on many factors. For example, from how resilient is each brain in a stressful situation”, comments the expert.
“It is not the same to speak of damage caused by infection than of alterations caused by stress”
Álvaro Pascual-Leone, neuroscientist
The harmful effects of covid-19 in uninfected people
“The first harmful effect of the coronavirus begins with the pandemic itself. It has been two years of a lot of fear, uncertainty and bad news and this has caused enormous damage to the mental health of the population,” says Pascual-Leone about the impact of the well-known ‘pandemic fatigue’. Along these same lines, several studies suggest that the pandemic has caused a increase in mental illness in the general population. A recent report of the World Health Organization (WHO) points out a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression around the world after two years of health crisis.
As Pascual-Leone explains, the pandemic has also worsened the health status of people with previous neurological problems. It has been observed, for example, a acceleration of cognitive decline in people with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Or a significant increase in hitherto rare disorders such as capgras syndromewhere the patient does not recognize the people around him. “There are patients who have explained to me that the person next to them is not their partner because ‘the normal thing’ was that they were always away from home, working, and now they saw them in an almost unlikely context,” he relates.
Another of the most worrying phenomena is the increased loneliness caused by the pandemic. “In the beginning, almost paradoxically, this crisis brought us together a lot as a society. We would go out to applaud the balconies, share a feeling of community and fight together against a common enemy. But over time this feeling has faded and what remains is a deep sense of loneliness“, comments the neuroscientist. “The feeling of loneliness and isolation It’s as bad for your brain as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day.“, adds the expert.
“The feeling of loneliness and isolation is as harmful to the brain as smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day”
Brain alterations caused by covid-19 infection
When a person is infected with the coronavirus responsible for covid-19, the virus penetrates different organs of their body. In the brain, at the time of infection, the virus can cause everything from inflammatory reactions to disturbances of taste and smell (also known as anosmia and ageusia). “The loss of the ability to perceive odors or tastes is not due to a problem with the nose or tongue; the affected is the brain circuit that channels these senses,” explains Pascual-Leone. “A distortion of the senses changes our brain state. If our sense of smell is altered, our way of being in the world is also altered”, comments the neuroscientist.
Beyond the immediate effects of the disease on the brain, experts remain inquiring about the aftermath that could remain after covid-19 infections. A study from the University of Oxford, recently published in the journal ‘Nature’, suggests that people who have overcome covid-19 show from brain tissue damage (especially in areas related to smell) to a loss of gray matter. “We don’t know if this alteration is due to a lack of vascular tone, to a neuron loss or to a structural problem. We also do not know if it is structural damage and permanent or something that improves over time,” explains Pascual-Leone.
Another of the unknowns that is still on the table right now is what happens to patients who suffer from persistent covid. That is, in those people who suffer from symptoms far beyond the infection. A new studio led by the University of Cambridge calculates that seven out of ten people affected by ‘long-covid’ experience concentration and memory problems several months after the onset of his illness. According to the analysis, 78% of those affected report difficulty concentrating, 69% report a state of mental confusion, 68% forgetfulness problems and 60% difficulties find the correct word in speech.
“There are still many things that we do not know about the impact of covid-19 on brain health. It is likely that we end up finding damage caused by the infection, but also a lot of mental alterations caused by the stress itself,” says Pascual-Leone. “It’s like when you’re on the road, you get stuck in traffic and you think something has happened serious but as you progressand you realize that everything is fine and that there is no obstacle. With the damage from covid, the same may happen; perhaps we are obsessing over possible serious consequences and in reality everything is better than we think”, illustrates the neuroscientist.
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