The new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, under a microscope at Fort Detrick, Maryland (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/National Institutes of Health/AP)
A study published this week in the journal Lancet Psychiatry showed increased risks of certain brain disorders two years after infection with the coronavirus, shedding new light on long-term neurological and psychiatric aspects of the virus.
The analysis, conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford and based on data from the health records of more than a million people worldwide, found that while the risks of many common psychiatric disorders returned to normal in about months, people were still at increased risk. of dementia, epilepsy, psychosis, and cognitive impairment (or brain fog) two years after contracting covid. Adults seemed to be at particular risk for long-lasting brain fog, a common complaint among coronavirus survivors.
The study results were a mix of good and bad news, said Paul Harrison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Oxford and the lead author of the study. Among the reassuring aspects was the rapid resolution of symptoms such as depression and anxiety.
“I was surprised and relieved at how quickly the psychiatric sequelae disappeared,” Harrison said.
David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, who has studied the lasting impacts of the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, said the study found some very worrying results.
“This definitely allows us to see the occurrence of significant neuropsychiatric sequelae in people who had covid and much more frequently than in those who didn’t,” he said.
Because it focused only on the neurological and psychiatric effects of the coronavirus, the study authors and others stressed that this was not strictly long-term research.
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“It would be exaggerated and unscientific to immediately assume that everyone in the [study] cohort had Covid for a long time,” Putrino said. But the study, he said, “sheds light on a long investigation of covid.”
Between 7 million and 23 million people in the United States, according to recent government estimates, have long-suffered from Covid, an umbrella term for a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and anxiety, that persist for weeks. and months. after the acute infection has subsided. These figures are expected to rise as the coronavirus takes hold as an endemic disease.
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The study was led by Maxime Taquet, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford who specializes in using big data to shed light on psychiatric disorders.
The researchers compared nearly 1.3 million patients diagnosed with COVID-19 between January 20, 2020, and April 13, 2022, with an equal number of patients who had other respiratory illnesses during the pandemic. The data, provided by the TriNetX electronic medical records network, came largely from the United States but also included data from Australia, Britain, Spain, Bulgaria, India, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
The study group, which included 185,000 children and 242,000 older people, found that the risks differed by age, with people 65 and older at higher risk of lasting neuropsychiatric effects.
For people aged 18 to 64, a particularly large increased risk was persistent brain fog, which affected 6.4% of people who had had Covid compared to 5.5% in the control group.
Six months after infection, the children did not have an increased risk of mood disorders, although they still had an increased risk of mental confusion, insomnia, stroke, and epilepsy. None of these effects were permanent for the children. With epilepsy, which is extremely rare, the increased risk was greater.
The study found that 4.5% of older people developed dementia within two years of infection, compared to 3.3% of the control group. This 1.2-point increase in a diagnosis as damaging as dementia is particularly concerning, the researchers said.
The study’s reliance on a large amount of anonymous electronic health data prompted some caveats, especially given the tumultuous times of the pandemic. Tracking long-term outcomes can be difficult when patients may have sought care from multiple health systems