Does the coronavirus affect cognition?
Study shines a light on covid brain fog
It’s a well-known fact by now that some people lose their sense of smell when they contract covid. But have you ever heard of the covid brain fog? Memory loss and concentration issues could be symptoms.
‘We still don’t know much about these neurological effects of the virus, though, or if they are really linked to covid’, says Chiara Biserni, master student of clinical neuropsychology. She’s part of the UG-based research team Cognition & Covid-19 (COCO-19) that is now looking into the possible effects of covid on the brain.
Most brain-related research has gone into how the coronavirus affects people’s state of mind. ‘Those studies look at the psychological effects, like a possible increase of depression and anxiety, but our research goes one step further’, says Carina Bock, another student in the COCO-19 team. ‘We’re not only interested in the psychological effects that are linked to the virus or the pandemic in general, but we look into the neuropsychological functioning as well.’
This means that they research how the virus affects the brain’s cognitive functions, such as our memory or planning ability.
Receptors in the brain
Other viruses, like sars and hiv, already showed negative cognitive effects. ‘That is why we wanted to investigate this for covid, too’, says Carina. Because the subject is still new, the students are excited to be able to work on it. ‘We are really contributing to something meaningful.’
How can covid affect brain functions when it mainly attacks the respiratory system? ‘The virus acts on certain receptors, many of which are located in the lungs’, Carina explains. ‘But these receptors are also located in other organs, like the heart and the brain, so we suspect the virus hits the brain as well.’
The study is looking at how covid impacts how fast people can switch between tasks, their planning skills, or how impulsive they are. ‘We’re going to test for so many different functions of the brain and that makes it super interesting’, says Chiara. ‘I hope we come up with some significant results.’
The testing will be done via an online questionnaire. Often, participants of covid-19 studies need to go to a laboratory where a researcher will evaluate how they perform when doing certain tasks. ‘But in our study, they need to evaluate themselves on these tasks’, says Carina.
If a participant is in bad health overall and then contracts covid, their answers will differ from people who are generally in good health. And so the researchers need to understand the participants’ living situation and lifestyle, says Chiara, ‘because it determines how they experience covid-related issues and that impacts our measurements’.
The advantage of this kind of testing is that because they can do it in their own home, participants may for example experience less stress that can impact the results. ‘A laboratory is an artificial situation that can make them act differently, which can lead to different results’, Chiara explains.
Participants who have experienced covid or who are recovering are compared to participants who have never had it. They fill out several questionnaires divided into four categories: general health, mental health, neuropsychological health, and personality aspects. They need to fill these out again after three months and after six months. ‘That way, we can look at the long-term effects’, says Chiara. ‘Maybe we see a spontaneous recovery after some time, but if the cognitive issues persist, it suggests that covid does indeed affect cognition.’
Carina has already evaluated some preliminary data from the first ninety volunteers. ‘Those showed that people who had covid performed worse with regards to their working memory’, she says. Our working memory determines how much information we can hold in our brain to use at a later point, such as recalling an instruction that was given earlier to execute a task at a later point. ‘The people who had covid seem to struggle with this more.’
Bigger sample group
The team is now working on getting a bigger and more diverse sample group. They recently started collaborating with the Wilhelmina hospital in Assen and universities in Mexico and Congo. ‘With the data from hospitalised covid patients, we hope to see more distinctive differences, because they experience more severe symptoms’, says Chiara. ‘Making cross-country comparisons will also help us to get more conclusive results and generalise the results to different cultures.’
If covid is shown to have a negative impact on cognitive abilities, they hope this will catalyse research into developing therapies to help patients recover. ‘And it will hopefully push people to avoid getting covid, because it shows there are consequences for all of us’, says Chiara.
The COCO-19 team is still looking for participants for the study. Everyone can apply, whether you’ve had covid or not, and you can participate anonymously. More information on the COCO-19 website.