by Annette Pinder
A new study by the University of Oxford and published in The Lancet Psychiatry, found that one in three patients experiences a psychiatric or neurological illness six months after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The most common diagnosis is anxiety or depression, but other serious complications included brain hemorrhage, ischemic stroke, dementia, sleep disorders, pain, headaches and migraines, cognitive impairment, and (in very rare cases) Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Max Taquet, a clinical fellow in psychiatry at Oxford and a study co-author, said that regardless the reason for why this is happening, health providers need to be alerted to what the research is showing. The large study looked at electronic health records of 81 million U.S. patients, of which 236,379 were diagnosed with Covid. Patients diagnosed with Covid were at a 44 percent higher risk of neurological and mental health diagnoses following their recovery. The study also reinforced previous research which indicated that some brain disorders increased in people who had more severe cases of Covid, particularly in those who were hospitalized or requiring intensive care. While 33.6 percent of Covid patients developed a neuropsychiatric illness, the risk increased to 46.4 percent among Covid patients treated in an ICU.
Researchers at Oxford believe the explanation for these neurological disorders may be tied to the fact that the virus can enter the brain through the olfactory bulb, where taste and smell are decoded. They also said that inflammation throughout the body harms blood vessels in the brain, which can lead to stroke-causing blood clots, delirium, or dementia.
Although researchers were able to tell from the participants’ medical records whether someone had previously suffered a stroke or been diagnosed with dementia, they could not determine whether someone might suffer a reoccurrence. For this reason, Masud Husain, Oxford professor of neurology and cognitive neuroscience, and a study co-author, said follow-up research will be necessary. Dr. Husain also pointed out that since the study did not include people who either tested positive for Covid, or who were infected with virus but showed no symptoms, the number of people who experienced neurological disorders could be underestimated.
Paul Harrison, Oxford professor of psychiatry and a study co-author, also agrees that more research is needed to study the lingering symptoms that overlap with problems caused by the neuropsychiatric illnesses found in study participants. A significant concern is that, since these disorders tend to be chronic, the impact of Covid may be with us for many years. As a result, health professionals refer to what they are seeing in patients as long COVID, which even affects young adults.
As researchers search for explanations regarding long COVID, the World Health Organization regularly updates its guidance on caring for these patients. Meanwhile, health providers must listen to the concerns and symptoms of long COVID patients who will likely require greater attention and care. It will also be important for the general public to understand why avoiding getting the virus by choosing to get vaccinated and practicing safe behaviors is so important.