The damaging effects of covid-19 will extend beyond the lungs to our brains and minds, scientists are warning. The viral disease may directly affect the nervous systems of some patients both during and post-infection, and the stress of the pandemic and its economic fallout is likely already leading to spikes in anxiety among the general public.
In a new preprint paper released this week in the journal Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, researchers from the University of California San Diego argue that the world is set to face a “crashing wave” of neurological and psychological illness caused by covid-19.
There’s a growing sense among doctors and scientists that covid-19 can directly affect our brain health.
Past pandemics caused by viral respiratory illnesses such as the flu, the authors noted, have been closely linked to reported spikes of neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as brain damage, mood changes, or muscular dysfunction. In many cases, these symptoms have happened during someone’s initial infection; other times, they happen post-infection. And we’re starting to see the same pattern with covid-19 emerge.
Rarely, confirmed covid-19 patients have also had brain swelling, strokes, or seizures, while many more patients have reported a loss of smell or taste, which can be caused by neurological damage.
The authors lay out a few theories for how this is happening. One is that the coronavirus can slip past the blood-brain barrier and infect nerve cells directly. Another is that the immune system overshoots its response to the virus, causing systemic damage throughout the body, including to the brain. They also theorise that certain immune cells can become infected, migrate to the brain, and then trigger dangerous inflammation. Another less supported but plausible theory is that the coronavirus damages the gut microbiome, which then affects the brain.
All these explanations could be true to some extent. Even making it through the initial infection relatively healthy may not spare you from neurological problems down the line. Some viral infections, including the flu, are rarely known to trigger later autoimmune disorders that affect the brain and nervous system, which can cause muscle weakness, chronic pain, and even paralysis.
Beyond those concerns, the pandemic is also affecting people’s mental health. Millions have seen covid-19 sicken or kill their family and friends, with many unable to be with their loved ones as they died or attend funerals in person, due to the aggressive measures needed to slow down person-to-person transmission.
These same measures have shut down or curtailed non-essential businesses, dramatically changing most people’s daily lives and devastating many financially. In countries like the U.S., with weak worker protections, these lockdowns have led to the highest unemployment rates seen since the Great Depression.
Essential workers, including in health care, are also reporting high levels of stress and burnout related to covid-19, as many struggle with meager pay and risky working conditions that leave them exposed to the virus.
“This pandemic is a potential source of direct and vicarious traumatization for everyone,” the authors wrote.
Because we’re still in the early stages of this pandemic, it may take a long time before we can know how commonly these neurological afflictions are happening among covid-19 patients, especially those post-infection. But by raising awareness now, the authors hope that the medical community keeps a close eye on people’s brain health moving forward.
“The delayed or chronic effects of this pandemic, particularly on public mental health, will not be fully appreciated for several years,” they wrote.
If you or someone you know is having a crisis, please call Lifeline, Australia’s 24-hour crisis hotline on 13 11 14.