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Friday, December 02, 2022

UK imaging study finds that even in mild COVID cases there is brain atrophy and cognitive decline

“There is a greater cognitive decline … a decline in mental ability, in being able to perform complex tasks.” Professor Gwenaëlle Douaud, lead author of the UK Biobank study reviewing the impact of COVID on the brain.

Every day new evidence emerges from studies conducted across the globe highlighting the serious dangers posed by infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID. The recent publication in the journal Nature by the UK Biobank on the impact of COVID and loss of the brain’s gray matter is quite alarming.

Led by scientists from the University of Oxford, the UK Biobank study is a 30-year-long project launched in 2006 intending to follow 500,000 volunteers ages 40 to 69 to investigate the impact of genetics and environment may have on disease development. The imaging arm of the large trial was opened in 2015 aimed at supplementing the overall findings with high-quality scans of the brain and other organs to gain better into disease processes and the impact of treatments.

With the plan of scanning 100,000 images, the study had already conducted more than 40,000 brain scans when the pandemic hit. As more and more reports of severely ill patients suffering from neurological consequences of their infections surfaced, the researchers turned their attention to studying the impact COVID had on the brains of the infected.

Their initial findings were released in preprint form in June 2021, and “revealed a significant, deleterious impact of COVID-19 on the olfactory cortex [the region of the brain responsible for smell perception] and gustatory cortex [taste and flavor], with a more pronounced reduction in gray matter thickness and volume in the left para-hippocampal gyrus, the left superior insula and the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex in COVID patients.” In the current study, the authors attempted to discern if even milder cases of COVID led to brain pathology after the acute phase of the infection had subsided.

Dr. Gwenaëlle Douaud, lead author of the UK Biobank study and professor in the department of clinical neurosciences at the University of Oxford, said, “What is really different in this study is that we had mild participants who were not hospitalized, so they were well enough to stay at home, and some were asymptomatic.” Additionally, a control group was used for comparison who also had two brain scans conducted and were confirmed never to have been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

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Figure 1 Areas of the brain impacted by COVID infection. See linked study for details of the figures and graphs. Source UK Biobank study.

Participants who had been diagnosed with a COVID infection were scanned, on average, four to five months after their infection. The results of the second brain scan were contrasted with their previous scans obtained before their COVID infection (in most instances, completed before the pandemic) offering a direct comparison. The authors wrote, “The availability of pre-infection imaging data reduces the likelihood of pre-existing risk factors being misinterpreted as disease effects.”

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