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Understanding Long COVID: Scientists Find Key Clues in Blood-Brain Barrier Dysfunction and Inflammation

Last Updated March 19, 2024 5:18 PM
Samantha Dunn
Last Updated March 19, 2024 5:18 PM
Key Takeaways
  • Researchers found unusual blood clotting and weakened immune responses in long COVID patients.
  • Lab tests show that substances from long COVID patients’ blood trigger inflammation signs in brain vessel cells.
  • Understanding these brain changes in long COVID could lead to new ways to diagnose and treat memory problems in affected patients.

Researchers have discovered a potential cause for the memory and concentration problems associated with long COVID: damage to the blood-brain barrier.

The study , led by Chris Greene and his team, utilized advanced imaging techniques and blood analysis to uncover the persistent cognitive struggles faced by many long COVID patients.

Brain Fog and Long Covid

A study published in Nature Neuroscience reveals significant blood-brain barrier disruption in individuals experiencing cognitive impairment associated with long COVID, often referred to as brain fog.

The team observed that in patients with brain fog, a dye intended to remain in the bloodstream leaked into the brain.

These MRI scans of 32 individuals, including those recovered from COVID-19 and others experiencing long COVID, revealed that the dye accumulates in areas crucial for language, memory, mood, and vision.

Long Covid brain scan.
C. GREENE ET AL./NATURE NEUROSCIENCE 2024

Changes in Gut Microbiome Linked to Cognitive Function Alterations

In a previous study , supported by findings from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the National Cancer Institute, research shows how the COVID-19 virus might remain in a person’s gut well beyond the initial infection.

Changes in the gut microbiome were observed in people experiencing brain fog due to COVID-19, there is a decrease in serotonin production, a crucial chemical for brain signaling, memory, digestion, and sexual desire.

Study Also Finds Repressed Immune Systems

The researchers also studied the blood of people with long COVID, noticing that their blood clotting system was behaving unusually, and their immune system wasn’t responding as strongly as it should.

They found that certain blood cells in these patients were sticking to the cells lining the brain’s blood vessels more than usual, causing swelling and inflammation in the brain.

Additionally, when they put a substance from the blood of long COVID patients onto brain blood vessel cells in the lab, those cells started to show signs of inflammation. This suggests that the swelling and inflammation seen in long COVID could be linked to unusual behavior in the patient’s blood.

Governmental Commitment to Support Long-COVID Sufferers

The UK government acknowledges that there are currently no known effective treatments that can cure long COVID , but has states invested £314 million to provide care for people with long COVID.

However, the effects of long COVID on employment are considerable – something the UK government has not yet directly addressed.

MP, Andrew Gwyne shared on X : “Government must ensure there are accessible routes back to employment, and give employers the tools they need to make workplaces safe for all.”

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