Should You Be Concerned About Brain Damage If You Had COVID? Here's What Doctors Say

Three top Boston doctors urged the public not to be alarmed and to await more information

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Three top Boston doctors reacted this week to a recent British study showing that mild cases of coronavirus can cause damage to the brain. And while they said there is reason for concern, they said people who have had COVID-19 should not be alarmed.

The study from the University of Oxford concluded that even mild cases of COVID-19 are linked to tissue damage, a decrease in the brain’s overall volume, cognitive function decline and a loss in brain regions tied to the sense of smell.

The three doctors expressed their opinions on this study during NBC10 Boston’s weekly COVID Q&A segment on Tuesday.

Boston Medical Center’s Dr. Sabrina Assoumou urged the public not to be alarmed, as more information is still being gathered.

“This is concerning because COVID is not only a pulmonary disease. We’re seeing changes in the brain, in the heart, so this is something we need to get more data about to learn the long-term complications of this so stay tuned and stay vigilant," she said.

Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes agreed. He said the study was interesting and that he wants to learn more about the data.

“It’s important to understand how prevalent these abnormalities are and how long-lasting or reversible they are,” he said.

The societal and lifestyle disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have triggered inflammation in the brain that can affect mental health, according to a Massachusetts General Hospital study.

Dr. Shira Doron, a hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, said she was reassured by another study which could be used to see the long-term implications of this British study.

“A recent study suggests that the cells that are responsible for smell don’t get directly infected by the virus," she said. "It appears that the immune response to the virus in the area where the smell receptors are can create this phenomenon called down-regulation so that the smell receptors decrease in number in response to the immune cells that are reacting to the virus, so it’s not a cell death.

"So if smell is affected by a down-regulation by cells and not damage to the interior of the cell, then perhaps what we may be seeing is that the area changes in response to the fact that the person isn’t smelling for a while as opposed to it being direct damage from the virus. Maybe that part of the brain, if you looked further down the line, would look more normal again when smell returns, as it does for most patients."

The doctors also responded to a conclusion in the study that said that a mild case of COVID could result in a reduction in grey matter.

“I think we’ll have to see what happens over the longer term,” Kuritzkes said. “Whether these changes are permanent or reversible still needs to be seen, and we’ll need confirmation of that.”

Inflammation, stress, memory issues, and other symptoms of "long haul" COVID-19 are still impacting Fiona Lowenstein and Chimére Smith. Smith tells LX News she developed occipital neuralgia after contracting the virus in March 2020. "It almost feels like I have a rubber band around my head, actually 20 of them at any given time," Smith said.

Assoumou agreed that more data is needed.

“It was an ongoing study that had brain scans of people before they got COVID, which was really helpful in moving forward and learning more.”

As for whether people can notice these brain impacts in their daily lives, Doron said it remains unclear.

“I don’t think we know," she said. "Like many studies in COVID, this is more hypothesis generating than it is answering questions. Discovering some underlying association with COVID needs a lot more study."

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