If you experienced loss of smell and taste while infected with COVID-19, you’re not alone, as this is one of the telltale symptoms of the infection. However, some COVID long-haulers are experiencing this symptom long after they’ve cleared the virus. Other common long-hauler symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, chest pain, brain fog and more. Researchers believe they’ve found the reason behind these symptoms: COVID-19 actually affects the structure of the brain.
What the Research Shows
The study, entitled “SARS-CoV-2 is associated with changes in brain structure in UK Biobank,” was published in the journal Nature in March of 2022. It found that there was brain tissue damage and shrinkage of brain regions 4.5 months after a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Researchers used data from UK Biobank, which is a large database containing medical information, including brain imaging data, from people in the United Kingdom. More specifically, they used imaging data collected from 785 people before and after the onset of the COVID pandemic. Four hundred and one participants had been infected with COVID between the brain scans and 384 participants were used as controls. The average duration between a diagnosis of COVID-19 and the second brain scan was 141 days.
The researchers then used software programs to analyze the raw brain imaging data. They extracted image-derived phenotypes (IDPs), which are quantifiable features that measure a specific brain structure or function. Over 2,500 IDPs were measured in each participant. Researchers focused on brain regions involved in processing olfactory information.
A greater reduction in gray matter volume and a greater increase in tissue damage markers in the brain regions associated with the olfactory system was uncovered in participants who had had COVID-19 compared to controls. There was also a greater loss of gray matter across the entire brain and an increase in the volume of cerebrospinal fluid in this group.
In short, there were changes in brain regions associated with the ability to smell, as well as global changes in the brain in participants who had been infected with mild to moderate COVID-19.
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