How COVID Affects Your Brain and How You Can Protect Yourself

It’s 10 A.M. You’ve already had one cup of coffee, but you’re still groggy. You can’t focus on the Zoom meeting taking place on your screen.

So your attention drifts to the photos on your desk. Your spouse says they’re from a trip the two of you took just a few weeks ago, right before you tested positive for COVID-19.

Sure, you recognize your own face in the photos – but why can’t you remember anything from it? Simply trying to remember is exhausting. You’ve recovered from the worst of COVID-19, but you feel you’ve lost a step ever since. 

If the scenario above sounds familiar, you’re not alone. You have what doctors and scientists are calling “neuro-COVID.” In this article, we’ll discuss how COVID can affect your brain. We’ll also explore 3 treatments that can help you combat symptoms and get back to feeling like yourself again. 

How Does COVID-19 Affect Your Brain?

“Long COVID” describes physical or cognitive symptoms that persist 4 or more weeks after testing positive or experiencing symptoms.1

Of “long COVID” symptoms, those that manifest in the brain are called “neuro-COVID.” People with “neuro-COVID” often complain of:

  • Brain fog
  • Memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Trouble reasoning or problem-solving
  • Depression
  • Headache
  • Sleep problems
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Inability to recall certain words
  • Seizure
  • Delirium

Who is Most at Risk of Neuro-COVID? 

Scientists don’t know yet who is most likely to suffer from neuro-COVID or how prevalent it really is.

One analysis indicated that between 7.5% and 31% of patients with COVID-19 experienced neurological symptoms.2 

However, the above estimate might be a severe underrepresentation. Another analysis found up to 69% of patients with severe COVID-19 have neurologic complications.3

Yet another study of over 3,700 patients found 80% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had neurological symptoms.4 

Neuro-COVID isn’t just limited to patients with severe COVID-19. Fatigue, brain fog, loss of smell, headaches, and loss of taste were all common “long COVID” symptoms – in those with mild illness.5

Scientists are also unsure how long the symptoms last. A recent study found patients of all ages are still struggling with post-COVID brain fog – more than 7 months after diagnosis.6  

What Causes the COVID-Related Cognitive Issues?

The exact cause of COVID-related cognitive issues remains unclear. 

However, researchers have found that the brains of people who died from COVID-19 show unmistakable signs of inflammation and damaged brain circuits. Some cells were also shown to have features similar to those found in neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.7,8

What was striking was that they couldn’t find signs of the virus in the brain

So what do researchers think is happening? Here are 3 possibilities. 

Astrocyte Infection

Astrocytes are cells that perform many essential, complex functions in your central nervous system (CNS). They cover the entire CNS, keeping everything organized and functioning well to support normal brain function.

Astrocytes also respond to all CNS insults, including inflammation and infection. The loss or disturbance of this defense mechanism might be the underlying cause of conditions like stroke and multiple sclerosis.9

Some scientists believe “neuro-COVID” may be due to SARS-CoV-2 attacking astrocytes. 

When researchers exposed the virus to brain organoids – miniature, simplified versions of the brain grown from stem cells – they found that it infected astrocytes much more than other cells.10

Another study also presented evidence indicating astrocytes are particularly vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection. The infection leads to changes in the brain structure and function, which could explain the neurological symptoms seen in COVID-19 patients.11

Blocked Blood Flow to the Brain

Adequate blood flow is vital for healthy brain function. Blood delivers necessary nutrients, such as oxygen and glucose, to the brain. 

Reducing or stopping blood flow long enough can damage or kill brain cells

Pericytes are cells embedded in the walls of blood vessels in your body – including your brain. Recent research suggests pericytes could be a point of SARS-CoV-2 infection.

When integrated into brain organoids, pericyte-like cells were capable of being infected with the virus. In fact, the pericyte-like cells served as “replication hubs” for the virus, supporting the virus’s invasion to other cell types.12

SARS-CoV-2 may also change pericytes’ behavior. A study using slices of hamster brain showed the virus can block the function of receptors on pericytes. The capillaries then constrict, reducing blood flow to the brain.13 

Another way SARS-CoV-2 may be blocking blood flow to the brain is through the promotion of blood clots. 

SARS-CoV-2 causes cells to increase the production of von Willebrand factor, a protein with key roles in blood clotting. The increase in von Willebrand factor promotes abnormal blood clotting, a common feature of severe COVID-19.14

Together, capillary constriction and blood clot formation would reduce oxygen supply to the brain, leading to the symptoms of “neuro-COVID.”

Immune System Malfunction

“Neuro-COVID” may be the result of your immune system’s overreaction to SARS-CoV-2. 

When your immune system encounters a virus, it normally generates antibodies against the virus. In some cases, your body fails to distinguish “self” from “non-self.” 

So it makes “autoantibodies” – antibodies that target your own tissues

Autoantibodies can cross the blood-brain barrier, a physical filter that makes it hard for most substances to enter the brain. Once they enter the brain, they could contribute to neurological disorders, such as memory loss or psychosis.15

The same effect might be what’s happening in COVID-19. 

Scientists found antibodies isolated from COVID-19 patients could bind to brain tissue, suggesting they could damage it.16 A follow-up study found autoantibodies capable of binding neurons in COVID-19 patients with neurological symptoms.17

What Can You Do About Neuro-COVID?

It’s still too early to know the long-term cognitive effects of COVID. More research is needed to know what would help those who have post-COVID brain fog. 

The good news? Many patients recover fully even after several months of long COVID or neuro-COVID. 

Until we learn more about neuro-COVID, let’s take a look at what you can do to protect yourself from its effects.

Reduce Inflammation With Specialized Pro-Resolving Mediators (SPMs)

Specialized pro-resolving mediators, or SPMs, are lipids (fats) derived from omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. They’ve been shown to reduce inflammation, modulate or balance the immune system, and also have blood-thinning properties. 

SPMs play a critical role in orchestrating the initial stages of resolving inflammation, including regulating aberrant chemokine and cytokine activity.18 Chemokines and cytokines are signaling molecules that attract immune cells to sites of infection. 

“Cytokine storm,” a term that gained notoriety at the start of the pandemic, describes a phenomenon in which excessive cytokine production makes too many immune cells show up. Cytokine storms, as we’ve seen from the pandemic, can have dangerous effects on your body

Decreased SPM levels and disrupted white blood cell responses have been linked to severe COVID-19.19,20 

Therefore, restoring SPM levels might help resolve inflammation in patients with neuro-COVID.21

Your body produces SPMs naturally, but you may want to consider boosting your SPM levels with SPM supplements

Support Your Mitochondria

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your cells. They also maintain balance in your immune system and regulate inflammation. 

Emerging evidence suggests mitochondrial dysfunction plays a significant role in the progression of COVID-19. 

Once inside a cell, SARS-CoV-2 triggers a massive cytokine storm, causing fatal harm if the immune system doesn’t adapt in time. The mitochondria are also forced to divert their attention away from producing energy to producing reactive oxygen species.

Too many reactive oxygen species can overwhelm the cell’s defense system and render mitochondria dysfunctional, ultimately leading to cell damage or death.22

Given the evidence, some scientists are suggesting that boosting mitochondrial health is as critical to overcoming COVID-19 as targeting the virus. 

Some ways to improve mitochondrial function include:

  • Supplementing with curcumin23
  • Eating a nutrient-dense, whole food diet
  • Eating more essential fats
  • Exercising regularly
  • Taking resveratrol supplements24
  • Supplementing with CoQ1025

Don’t wait until you get COVID. Talk with your doctor about incorporating a few of these into your daily routine to support your body’s mitochondria. 

Train Your Brain With Neurofeedback

Can you train your brain to clear brain fog? It’s possible with neurofeedback therapy. 

Studies have shown that the SARS-CoV-2 virus creates changes in the brain that can be detected on EEG (a test that detects electrical activity in your brain).26

Neurofeedback, also known as EEG biofeedback, takes advantage of your brain’s ability to adapt and change using the same means as learning a new skill – practice, repetition, and feedback

Your brain doesn’t stay the same throughout your life. It changes and adapts, structurally and functionally, to your unique experiences. Fortunately, this means that even a “damaged” brain has the ability to repair itself if given the proper training. 

A single neurofeedback session gives your brain hundreds of opportunities to correct itself and be rewarded. In fact, 75% of patients see results after just one visit and with a series of treatments, the benefits can last a lifetime.

To learn more about neurofeedback and how it can help you, visit our page What is Neurofeedback Therapy?

Need More Help With Your Neuro-COVID Symptoms?

We’re still in the early stages of understanding the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. That doesn’t mean you have to wait years to learn what can help with your symptoms. 

If you’re experiencing brain fog, memory loss, headaches, or any neuro-COVID symptoms, don’t lose hope! We’re here to help you get back to feeling your best. 

At NeuroLogic, we specialize in optimizing your brain health. Schedule a free Discovery Call today to learn more about how we can help you. 

Your brain is worth the investment.

 

ALWAYS consult your physician before starting any supplements or drugs.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product(s) mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician.

 

References:

 

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/long-term-effects/index.html
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7889402/
  3. https://www.cell.com/cancer-cell/fulltext/S1535-6108(21)00051-9
  4. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2779759
  5. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acn3.51350
  6. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2785388?utm_source=For_The_Media&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=ftm_links&utm_term=102221
  7. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03710-0
  8. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.06.11.21258690v3
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2799634/
  10. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.01.17.427024v1.full
  11. https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.10.09.20207464v4.full-text
  12. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.02.09.430349v1.full
  13. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.04.01.438122v1.full
  14. https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.05.11.088500v2.full
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33976421/
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33058755/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33359380/
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7943727/
  19. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.121.319142
  20. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0256226
  21. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7943727/
  22. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7835331/
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4289591/
  24. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684867/ 
  25. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33164536/
  26. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33809957/
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