Can COVID-19 Impact the Brain?

New information is emerging in COVID-19 hospital research showing that patient brains are negatively impacted in about 20% of all cases.

A growing portion of those affected by COVID experience temporary episodes of cognitive decline or decompensation. This appears to be especially true of those with severe disease symptoms, especially the elderly, who required intensive care hospitalization.

One example of cognitive decompensation is delirium, often experienced with lapses in awareness and mental fortitude. Independent of COVID cases, this is actually an extremely common symptom during or after any post-intensive care experience.

“Delirium is a state of confusion that commonly occurs when patients are in the ICU,” says Dr. Lauren Ferrante, a Yale Medicine pulmonologist and critical care doctor. “The patient may not be able to think clearly, may not understand what is happening around them, and may see or hear things that are not there.”

Brain Dysfunction and delirium is seen in roughly two out of three patients in ICU settings and closer to 70% for patients placed on ventilators.

The symptoms of delirium include but are not limited to:

  • Inability to think clearly
  • Trouble paying attention
  • Difficulty understanding what’s going on around them
  • Seeing, imagining or hearing things that are not there

There are many reasons why delirium may occur in the brain while being sedated on a ventilator including:

  • Extreme fatigue
  • Oxygen deprivation in the brain during labored breathing
  • Severe infections, pain, or medical illnesses
  • Alcohol, sedatives, medications, or painkillers—or withdrawal from those substances

Although brain function disturbances have been reported in recovering COVID-19 patients, the brain dysfunctions seem primarily linked with the affectation of the disease on the body, rather than the disease itself, which primarily affects the lungs and heart.

Long hospital stays, rigorous treatments, and the psychological duress of being in prolonged hospitalized isolation are thought to play a more significant role in disorienting the brain’s senses than COVID-19. However, older age increases the risk of delirium, too, and seniors are experiencing COVID-19 at much higher rates than younger adults.

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