The Long Haul, Part 3: Long Neurological COVID
As I have noted before in this series, acute COVID-19 often appears with neurological symptoms ranging from loss of smell to severe depression to stuttering to brain fog, mania and psychosis. It sometimes has been linked to suicidal ideation. In addition, long haulers often have cognitive symptoms and structural brain changes similar to those seen in aging brains and in those with Alzheimer’s disease. An early survey of 153 COVID-19 patients in the UK and a more recent study of people hospitalized with the acute disease in Italy both found that about a third had neurological symptoms of some kind ranging from sensory problems, motor impairment, and cognitive issues that persist after clearing the acute infection. Other estimates of neuro involvement in long COVID have trended even higher. Many people who survived earlier coronavirus infections such as SARS and MERS also experienced neurological impairments up to 3.5 years after acute infection. Obviously many of these symptoms of long COVID are very serious while others are more annoyances. So, what is going on? Researchers have pretty well cataloged the unusual range of long COVID’s neurological symptoms and now are at the very early stages of understanding their causes and how to treat the problems. Here, I label long COVID that primarily manifests itself with neurological symptoms as “long neuro COVID” in order to distinguish it from other long COVID problems that primarily involve the lungs, heart, or other organs.
What is long neuro COVID like? In the early days of the pandemic, a newly minted English MD worked on the front lines in a COVID ward and soon became a patient herself. Being 35 and healthy she expected to quickly recover but underwent the long haul, which she has written about. The acute phase of the disease lasted about two weeks, but by 4-5 weeks, she was experiencing new persistent problems including tachycardia with a resting heart rate of 140 bpm (normal is 60-100) that would increase to 170 after minimal exertion such as getting a glass of water. She also was breathless with a resting respiratory rate of 20-24 (12-16 is normal), saying it felt like her “body forgot to breath.” She described cyclic bouts of pins and needles in all four extremities, and whole-body shaking as violent as if she were having a seizure. There were feelings of impending doom, and, despite extreme mental and physical exhaustion, she was unable to sleep, which eventually led to hallucinations. Those symptoms slowly subsided over a few months only to be replaced by intense pain very deep in one ear. This ultimately led to tinnitus and some hearing loss and a diagnosis of encephalitis. Ten months later, she wrote that she was recovering but was far from normal. She suspected that these symptoms were driven by a dysfunctional autonomic nervous system, a condition called dysautonomia. The autonomic nervous system is what regulates your organs and allows you to breath, your heart to beat, your gut to move food through it, and controls your blood pressure without you having to think about it all. Since her experience in early 2020, it has been confirmed that long neuro COVID can wreak havoc with both the peripheral and central nervous systems.
After two years of long COVID, we now know that long neuro COVID symptoms are wide ranging; some are devastating, like stroke, encephalitis, and even psychosis or mania, or even suicide. Other neuro symptoms are more subtle such as cognitive decline, loss of smell, hearing loss, balance problems, fatigue, memory problems, and difficulty concentrating or brain fog. Others are bizarre, such as stuttering. This seemingly unrelated range of symptoms suggests that there might be several different subtypes of long neuro COVID, possibly arising from distinct pathologies.
Back in July 2020, one of the first studies was published describing neurological symptoms that appeared long after the initial COVID disease. This since has been followed by several other reports of neurological or neuropsychiatric problems long after recovering from acute COVID disease. One study by Oxford scientists published last February, found that about 33% of post-COVID patients are left with long term mental health or neurological symptoms including brain fog, headaches, dizziness, and cognitive problems such as difficulty doing simple math. Some studies have shown an elevated incidence of PTSD, and seizures or movement disorders long after COVID recovery. Other post-COVID patients have new-onset depression, psychosis, and suicidal behavior as reported in JAMA Psychiatry by a Columbia University research team this past spring. In this large study investigators examined electronic health records of more than 236,000 COVID-19 patients, mostly in the US. The researchers compared their records with records from those who experienced non-COVID respiratory tract infections during the same time frame and found an increased incidence in anxiety and mood disorders in post-COVID patients. More than three months after diagnosis, these common psychiatric diagnoses were found in about 34% of COVID survivors. Other studies confirmed that having the disease led to doubled risk for anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.
Importantly, researchers did not see an increased incidence of other neurological problems such as Parkinson’s disease or Guillain-Barré syndrome in long COVID patients, both of which sometimes follow viral infection. This suggests that long neuro COVID involves a select subset of neurological problems rather than an indiscriminate neurological malady.
Similarities between long COVID and Alzheimer’s disease. The cognitive issues seen in many long neuro COVID patients share intriguing similarities with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and normal aging. Thus, an international group of researchers found that more than half of patients 60 or older who had been infected with the CoV-2 virus showed acceleration of Alzheimer’s-like symptoms such as cognitive decline. Other researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio studied more than 200 older adults from Argentina who had COVID-19. Those who had a persistent loss of smell were more likely to experience AD-like cognitive issues. Importantly, the area of the brain affected in AD overlaps with the area that processes smell. It also might be relevant that the sense of smell, which is often lost in COVID patients, is also often reduced in AD patients.
Three to six months after they were infected, more than half of these patients still struggled with AD-like cognitive challenges including persistent forgetfulness, difficulty sequencing tasks, and forgetting words and phrases. How sick a patient was with acute COVID-19 was not an indicator of whether they would experience this cognitive decline. In other words, AD-like symptoms also occurred in people who only had mild COVID.
COVID-19, of course begins as a respiratory disease and investigators have long been tuned in to the potential links between respiratory diseases and the brain. For example, AD-like changes in cognition and behavior were also observed in people with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). Infection with other respiratory viruses can also increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
Together, these findings suggest that some patients with long neuro COVID might have an acceleration of Alzheimer’s-related symptoms and pathology, but it is too soon to conclude that long neuro COVID causes AD, or even that AD and COVID-related cognitive dysfunction are even related. A major distinction between classical AD and AD-like long COVID is that the latter do not show the amyloid brain plaques which are pathognomonic of AD, which suggests that these could be distinct cognitive maladies with overlapping symptoms. Furthermore, other studies showed that worse cognitive scores in long COVID patients correlated with patients who had lower oxygen saturation during a 6-minute walk test. This makes it possible that persistent oxygen deprivation in the brain due to lung compromise during COVID could cause cognitive difficulties in these patients.
At this point, these observations simply raise many unanswered questions on whether there is a real overlap with COVID and Alzheimer's disease. But, it is too soon to say that COVID-19 increases a person's risk for Alzheimer's vs causes a different neurological problem symptomatically related to AD.
What causes long neuro COVID? Long COVID represents a broad category of over 200, often unrelated symptoms encompassing 10 organ systems. It likely consists of multiple different maladies with manifold causes, of which long neuro COVID is at least one broad category. Based on its biology and range of symptoms, long neuro COVID also likely entails more than one specific problem. It makes sense then that the many different manifestations of long neuro COVID would arise from different causes. Such seems to be the case. Researchers have cataloged several genetic, structural, inflammatory, and infectious correlates to the various symptoms, painting a complicated picture. Then things get really confusing since viral infection of neurological tissues and/or the attendant inflammatory responses could cause the observed structural changes and all this could be predisposed or mitigated by genetics. In other words, things are as clear as mud right now about what causes long neuro COVID. Investigators are just now making basic observational correlates between the neurological changes and long neuro COVID symptoms, and these correlations will be followed by the harder studies to learn just how these changes might cause the plethora of symptoms that have been documented.
On the genetic front, a Stanford U team found that long neuro patients manifest widespread changes in gene expression in the region of the brain involved in complex processing of human thought. These genetic changes affected genetic pathways that play a role in mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression. Although these results were made in the brains of patients who died of acute COVID disease, such fundamental changes in gene expression in the brains of patients with acute COVID would plausibly lead to long-lasting post-COVID effects. Similar changes in gene expression were not found in the brains of people who died from flu or from nonviral causes, which strengthens a possible cause and effect relationship of gene expression changes to some long neuro COVID symptoms.
But, what causes changes in brain gene expression? Is it directly due to viral infection in the brain or secondarily due to the immune inflammatory response to the virus? Maybe both? Or is something else involved? Evidence exists for all these possibilities.
One report on 111 unvaccinated patients from the Chicago area showed that 56 who had long neuro COVID cognitive problems showed a particular immunological signature that was not found in people who cleared the acute infection without long term problems. The severity of cognitive deficits correlated with reduced memory T cell responses to certain parts of the virus, and with enhanced antibody (or B cell) responses to one of the viral proteins. Furthermore, it has been observed that females are more prone to devleop long neuro COVID. Since women also are more likely to get autoimmune disease, some have put these observations together to suggest that there might be an autoimmune component to some long neuro COVID symptoms.
The above study assessed the anti-CoV-2 immune responses of T and B cells from the peripheral blood but not from the brains of the patients. In other words, it did not address whether the immune response in the body affects brain function or whether an antiviral immune response directly occurs in the brain affecting cognitive function. Other researchers have shown that the virus can indeed enter the brain via the nose and spread from the olfactory lobe to the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Other confirmatory studies have found viral protein expression in cortical neurons of autopsied brain tissues, and have directly shown that the virus can infect neurons in tissue culture. While these findings are consistent with direct infection of the brain and the possibility of immunological damage to the organ, they do not settle the question of whether viral infection itself might directly damage the central nervous system, or whether it is the immune reaction to the virus that causes the problems.
Perhaps confounding all of this are the results of a large study on gross brain structure conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and at the NIH. In this study, researchers used the UK Biobank, an existing database, which contains brain imaging data from >45,000 people in the UK going back to 2014. This means that there was pre-COVID baseline imaging data the researchers could compare to post-COVID brain images. New images were collected from 394 of these patients who caught COVID and compared to their pre-COVID images and to 388 controls who did not catch COVID-19. The groups were otherwise matched based on age, sex, common disease risk factors, etc. The results showed that those who caught COVID suffered significant loss of gray matter in the frontal and temporal lobes on the left side of the brain. This brain loss was found regardless of COVID disease severity. Those who were COVID-free had no brain tissue loss. Interestingly, these regions of the brain are responsible for smell, taste, memory, and emotion, all of which can be affected in long neuro COVID patients. We also often talk about the left temporal lobe in the context of aging and Alzheimer’s disease because that is where the hippocampus is located, which plays a key role in memory and other cognitive processes associated with aging and AD. While it is normal to see reduction in gray matter with age, the COVID-linked changes were greater than that typically seen during normal aging. All of this raises questions about how COVID might affect the natural aging process in the brain.
In addition to these genetic, immunological, and structural changes in the central nervous system of COVID patients, autopsies also have revealed clotting in multiple organs including the brains of many patients. About one in 50 COVID brains showed evidence for an ischemic stroke, which is when a blood clot interrupts blood flow to a region of the brain downstream from the clot. Ischemic strokes in COVID patients tended to be more severe and more likely to result in severe disability or death than stroke in non-COVID individuals. Again, while these findings were made on autopsies of patients suffering from acute COVID, these ischemic strokes would have caused long term manifestations presenting as long neuro COVID.
There are other, very specific and very peculiar neurological symptoms that might arise from more specific neurological abnormalities. For example, some long COVID patients display hearing loss and or balance problems which suggest vestibular involvement that could be due to CoV-2 infection of the inner ear. Scientists at MIT and Stanford found that the ACE2 protein, which is the cell receptor for the CoV-2 virus, is expressed on certain inner ear cells obtained from surgery patients. Since inner ear tissue is difficult to obtain, the researchers directed stem cells to develop into inner ear cell precursors or that could assemble into primitive inner ear organoids in tissue culture and showed that the CoV-2 virus could infect them. Together, these observations support, but do not prove, that infection of the inner ear is a cause of hearing and balance issues in some long neuro COVID patients. It is relevant to note that it is not unusual for hearing loss and balance disorders to be caused by other viral infections of the inner ear.
Then there also are the rare long COVID patients who develop an odd stuttering problem. Typically, stuttering originates in the complex circuity of the brain that controls speech and this speech disruption usually appears when children are learning to talk. However, “neurogenic stuttering” can arise in adults after brain trauma. Since only a few researchers are investigating long COVID-associated stutter, the cause is not well understood, but, the link between neurogenic stuttering and brain injury raises the possibility that inflammation and/or micro-clotting caused by the virus or by the immune response to the virus in the brain microvasculature could lead to the neurological damage that causes stuttering.
Bottom line. These many new findings, while provocative, do not yet fully tell us how long neuro COVID arises, or how to treat it. But, they raise many new questions: What do these COVID-related brain changes mean for the process and pace of brain aging in long COVID patients? Over time does the brain recover? How do we medically deal with these patients? Can we prevent long neuro COVID? Etc.
Stay tuned, we will see.
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