COVID-19 AND THE BRAIN
Updated: May 9
Coming up in May, the US government plans to end the coronavirus public health emergency phase that we have been in since 2020. This will be kind of the official “we’re done with this” pandemic statement and life moves on. Well, we hope life moves on for most of us. Many of us will continue to carry the emotional scars of losing loved ones way too soon, or of having watched helplessly as many hospitalized patients died. There is still so much we don’t know about the Covid-19 virus.
Aside from the severe respiratory complications that many people had, there were some less severe symptoms including a diminished sense of smell. Early on in the pandemic, I used to hear this a lot: “It’s not Covid. I can still smell fine.” That was the definitive test for many. I would say that was a good sign, but I wouldn’t use that as the gold standard for whether you had Covid. It was very interesting, though. Why did Covid cause so many people to lose their sense of smell?
The good news is that somebody is doing the research to find out. In fact, one of the leading research groups studying the effects of Covid on the brain is right here in the valley. Banner Sun Health Research Institute, located in Sun City, has been doing research on diseases of the brain for decades. Many of their studies have been focused on Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and other types of dementia.
Over the last several years, the research institute has been studying the brains of deceased individuals and comparing those that had active Covid with those that were free of infection. What the early research shows is that a large percentage of Covid-infected individuals had the virus located in the region of the brain that affects our sense of smell. The olfactory bulb to be specific. There were extensive changes to this area of the brain that could only be attributed to the virus. So, this would make sense regarding people’s loss of smell. The researchers concluded that this was the most likely path that Covid used to enter the brain. Yup, right up through the nose.
In addition to changes in smell, people reported other neurological symptoms. Not too far from the brain’s smell center is another important area called the amygdala. This region is responsible for many vital functions including the processing of emotions, initiation of survival instincts, and the proper storage of memories. Changes to this area of the brain could explain the reports of depression, anxiety, and “brain fog” that have lingered in many people post-covid infection.
The bottom line: the official pandemic may be coming to an end, but many of our lives have been changed forever. I think it is important to take care of ourselves as best we can and to support ongoing research into Covid-19. The only way to help defend ourselves in the future is to understand as much as we can about this virus.
Stay safe and be well,